There’s so much that’s weird about ‘Strictly Ballroom - The Musical’ that it’s hard to know where to start. First up, it’s not really a musical at all. There’s barely a new song in sight – instead, the score is an ingenious piecemeal of hits, from Whitney Houston to REM to Robyn. And it’s sung almost entirely by Will Young, dressed up as a sort of haunted retro compere (think Che in ‘Evita’) with a handlebar moustache, spandex and, at one point, rollerskates. Perhaps the rest of the cast can sing too, but they’ve got bigger fish to fry: acclaimed choreographer Drew McOnie’s production puts all the focus on tirelessly energetic, amped-up ballroom routines and shamelessly exaggerated physical comedy.
Baz Luhrmann’s original 1992 movie is already pretty arch, mixing high-haired satire of the cut-throat world of amateur ballroom dancing with a kind of ‘Dirty Dancing’-style sweaty romance between snake-hipped champion Scott and nerdy beginner Fran. Most of this heterosexual sensuality has been expunged from this version (adapted from one by Lurhmann), but its exploration of thwarted ambition and creative gatekeeping lives on.
Established musical theatre star Zizi Strallen makes her mark with a lovable vein of physical comedy, trembling with suppressed passion and morphing from stiff puppet to expert dancer. But Jonny Labey is less convincing as her maverick idol-turned-squeeze Scott, and the pair’s romance suffers from the fact that they never actually sing together, in a slightly baffling waste of Strallen’s talents.
It’s a decision that’s part of director Drew McOnie’s laser-focus on the dance. And the ballroom scenes are appropriatelly spectacular. The stage is flooded with couples wearing costume designer Catherine Martin’s masterful get-ups: each tinted a different rainbow hue, shimmering with sequins and gently vibrating ostrich feathers. The dancers smiles’ are as fixed and cartoonishly wide as a troupe of leaping dolphins. And their physical skills tip over into the narrative scenes. Adapted by Craig Pearce, the text cleaves pretty tightly to Luhrmann’s original, but the comic performances are dialled up to 11: Scott’s spurned former dance partner Liz (a memorably funny Lauren Stroud) expresses her grief at the volume and pitch of an air-raid siren.
Will Young’s voice can do it all – ethereal Whitney Houston covers, matinee-idol macho – but even so, the show relies heavily on his singing to add depth to the whippet-fast, chihauhua-light plot. The night I saw it, he marked the curtain call by sinking to the floor in a puddle of camped-up exhaustion. Still, if ‘Strictly Ballroom’ is indeed a bit tiring, it’s got enough talent and relentless invention to make it exhilarating, too. It’s halfway between a tribute to and a very, very silly send-up of a much-loved movie, whose cava-swilling fans will leave the theatre with a skip, slide and hop in their step.