I must have been around 9, may 10 at an absolute stretch. I was wearing my good matching parachute tracksuit in aqua with the white and pink stripes across the shoulders and white sneakers, and probably had a braid so tight it took effort for me to blink. There would undoubtedly have been a choc top or bright yellow bucket of popcorn consumed on such a special occasion as this. Sitting beside my Mum at the Belgrave Cameo in the Dandenong Ranges, I remember first seeing the deeply romantic, humorous and profoundly Australian tale of Strictly Ballroom – and being surprised and delighted to see my own community reflected back right back at me on the big screen. It felt ugly and beautiful and simple and complex all at the same time. Even in my youth, I knew this complex feeling to represent truth – truth with a John Paul Young soundtrack.
The last time I saw Strictly Ballroom, it was under a yellow and lavender twilight in the piazza on Lygon Street in Carlton about twenty years later: a series of summer films for the community to enjoy. Seeing Fran and Scott dance into their own sunset whilst I watched kids of all ethnicities run around the dusky piazza, imitating their movements of grand romance to the tentative, bashful lilt of ‘Time After Time’ – it reminded me again of how universal a film this is. Indeed, without the existing masterpiece of Strictly Ballroom the film, I’m not sure that Strictly Ballroom the musical would have flourished (despite the fact Luhrmann’s project actually began its life as a theatrical production).
Last week I was lucky enough to enjoy a viewing of this theatrical interpretation of the classic film at Her Majesty’s Theatre courtesy of Nuffnang – I had a plus one and of course I had to bring my Mum along – after all, it was she who took me to see it at the Belgrave Cinema all those years ago to see it. We had a pre-theatre drinkie where Mum had the chance to meet ladies she’s heard so much about over the years – Cecylia of her eponymous blog, Marianne of Esme and the Laneway and Theresa from The Plus Ones (below).
I knew that the musical wouldn’t be like the film – after all it couldn’t be: it was a musical and couldn’t use any of Luhrmann’s signature cinematographic devices to build intimacy. The set itself was very effective whilst not being oversized, with banners advertising the bogo-pogo, Kendall’s School of Dance and all the usual favorites from the movie. Think RSL on the Goldcoast via a romantic iteration of the western suburbs of Sydney – which is spot on when you consider the film. As a musical, it was crowd-pleasing, funny and joyful. A good night out and something that would be difficult for anyone to actively dislike. At its most powerful, it captured the feeling of the movie – that sense of truth I referred to earlier. The scenes with Fran’s migrant Spanish family were the most evocative, driven by a powerful lead with a beautiful mature voice – Fran’s Abuela played by Natalie Gamsu. There were some good, original songs and the most lyrical scene of all – Fran and Scott dancing before the Coca-Cola sign as the first flickers of their love come to life – was indeed heart warming. Robert Grubb played a wickedly funny Barry Fife – replete with bad toupee and mincing bago-pago, and Drew Forsythe was an excellently eccentric Doug Hastings.
The characters which are writ loudest in my mind are Doug and Shirley, played in the film respectively by Barry Otto and Pat Thomson. The closeups on their craggy, wonderful faces – “I’ve got my happy face on today, Les!” – are the details that bring Strictly Ballroom from being just another romanctic movie to being a story of vulnerability and coming to peace with our weaknesses and strengths. I didn’t feel that the musical conveyed these richer emotions – but it truly was a dance party and a fine homage to one of my favorites. Well worth supporting, and a real crowd-pleaser.