Baz Luhrmann’s 1992 movie about the world of Australian competitive ballroom dance began life as a short play. It returned to the stage as a fully fledged musical, created by Luhrmann, in Australia in 2014 and is now receiving its UK premiere. The show follows the fortunes of Scott Hastings, a talented young dancer in 1980s Australia, who wants to make up his own moves – thereby losing his partner and putting him in conflict with the ballroom dance police. It is utterly ridiculous, and knows it. But it also knows how to give the audience a really good time and there are moments when Drew McOnie’s choreography burns up the floor with such a fever that it is totally joyous.
The book, by Luhrmann and Craig Pearce, needs more work to bring out the fairytale element of a story which offers riffs on Cinderella in many guises: Scott’s new partner is the overlooked Fran, the dance-hall cleaner, who of course when she takes off her glasses turns out to be a real beauty. There are any number of ugly sisters (male and female) among the ballroom competitors, and Scott’s apparently insignificant father, Doug (Stephen Matthews, very good), is like the absent mother in the Cinders story. The message that you should follow your heart is pure sugar-sprinkled Disney with added camp.
But there are other more interesting things lurking beneath the surfeit of sequins that with more emphasis could give this the greater emotional depth it needs.
McOnie’s production doesn’t always flow fluidly as it moves from one set piece to another, but it offers a nod to Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge in its creation of a red velvet, chocolate-box world within a world, via Soutra Gilmour’s design, in which tat and glitter, light and darkness exist side by side. There is a constant sense of dancers lurking around the edges, like Cinderellas in their own shadows, just waiting for the moment when they might claim the spotlight. These ghosts are beguiling.
Tamsin Carroll’s Shirley, Scott’s pushy mum, is mostly a comic figure of fun, but the show plays nicely on the idea of parents who use their children to fulfil their own unfinished dreams. The evening’s most electrifying sequence takes place at Fran’s house when her father, Rico, and family laugh at Scott’s attempt to dance a paso doble and show him how it should be done: with feeling, not technical brilliance. As Rico, the father who comes to understand that his daughter must follow her own dance, Fernando Mira stops the show.
The dancing is sublime and if the supporting characters are mostly a series of caricatures – the women in particular are flouncy and catty – the cast work hard to bring each and every one an element of distinctiveness. Sam Lips has all the right moves but doesn’t bring the necessary warmth to Scott to make us really root for him but Gemma Sutton’s quietly watchful, velvet-voiced Fran is a delight.