3.5 Stars / 4.5 Stars
"Well, it certainly is sparkly."
That's how I have begun every conversation I've entered into recently about CLOC's latest production - Strictly Ballroom. Because as a reviewer and 'general public' patron, that is one of the consistent responses I have.
I was feeling very unsure how to review this production initially, because after seeing it, I felt that the things that I didn't like about the production - the general public (who will more than likely be so blinded by the sequins that they won't notice much else) probably wouldn't. That being said, I don't think that can excuse the flaws that I *did* notice and for the expected standard from this company and the ticket price - I feel I am entitled to point out.
In saying that, I am going to write a 'split review' for the most part of this article. The 3.5 Star 'critical' review, and the 4.5 Star 'sparkly' review. OK. Here goes.
Let's begin with the 'sparkly' one.
This production is glorious to look at. The costumes (designed by Victoria Horne) are absolutely stunning. They shimmer, they sparkle and they look a lot like the original (same colours, similar designs etc). So if you've come for the glitz and glamour, you got it. There's sparkly shoes to match and an abundance of face glitter. It really is an attack on the retinas in the most magical of ways. It's pretty, there's lots of dancing, lots of tricks, cool dance lifts, fun wigs, hooray for sparkles.
Now for the 'critical' one.
This production has some excellent qualities and some disappointing ones. First of all, yes the costumes are amazing (aside from one which looks less like a competition costume and more like a sparkly bra and diaper.) Cast wise, the absolute stand outs are Kristen Mihalos as Fran, Elizabeth Matjacic as Abuela and Tailem Tynan as Vanessa.
Mihalos is exceptional as the dorky-girl-turn-mature-sassy-woman that is Fran. Her acting is vulnerable and at times hilarious, her dancing is sharp and her voice is a powerhouse. My one tiny issue was the extreme contrast between her thin and young character voice and her very mature singing voice. It was almost like a different character between when she sung and when she spoke. That being said, when she sings it is still very impressive.
Elizabeth Matjacic is wonderful and warm as Fran's Abuela. Her accent is accurate, her performance is passionate and her singing voice is beautifully controlled.
My main gripe with the show was the dancing. Anybody familiar with ballroom dancing of any variety will be familiar with the 'dancer aesthetic'. Ballroom dancers carry themselves in a very particular way. It's accurate, it's poised and it's extremely sharp. Excluding Mihalos (who has these qualities), Tailem Tynan appears to be the only dancer who has these skills. Every move she makes is executed with perfection. In her presence, the other dancers pale in comparison. They are all excellent dancers - just not in this style. Finishing poses showcase various different angles and arm positions and lifts and turns are often awkward or just lacking the 'sharpness' that they so require for this style of dance. I completely understand that these skills cannot be taught in a short rehearsal period to achieve perfection, but I was surprised at the lack of ballroom talent that was cast. Perhaps they did not audition. And if they didn't, that was a real opportunity for them that was missed by both the dancers and the production.
In the lead role of Scott Hastings, Dylan Henry is an incredible dancer and his stage-chemistry with Milhalos is strong. His dance solo in Act One is everything one would expect from the Music and the Mirror solo in 'A Chorus Line'. Henry pulls out every trick in the bag - turns, jumps, leaps and flourishes all executed with skill and flair. Where Henry falters is his singing voice. Particularly when he's singing alongside Milhalos. With that in mind, I cannot think of many actors who can dance like he does in this show and also sing and act.
The absolute highlight of the show for me is the Paso Doble number in Act One. The male ensemble is strikingly passionate and strong. Every stomp and thigh slap is filled with an explosive energy that is exhilarating to watch.
Under the baton of Musical Director Malcom Fawcett, the pit orchestra was a bit hit and miss on opening night. Split notes and one transition passage that was blatantly out of time was surprising, but not out of line with the rest of the production. Ensemble vocals are well done in what is a bit of an uneventful score.
As we near the end of the review, it feels fitting to discuss the end of the show.
When I think of Strictly Ballroom, I think of two things: Love is in the Air and the epic paso doble scene at the end. It's one of my favourite moments in Australian film. The dance, the music cut out, the clapping, the awesome routine over the clapping, the moment the music kicks back in, the ERUPTION of clapping when they continue to dance. It's too much for my excited little fingers to handle as I type.
So let's look at the moment in this production. The music kicks in, Milhalos comes out in the signature red dress, the music drops out, the clapping begins, and then before you can blink...it's over. It just. Ends. Clapping, everyone dances, end. I cannot comprehend why the decision was made to cut what is the most iconic part of this show down to what felt like ten seconds. I would say that was the ultimate anti-climax but....
Then the cast bursts into a 'Love is in the Air' finale. We all know the song. The audience begins to tap their thighs and quietly sing along, and here it comes, the chorus with the words we all love to sing when the end of every ethnic wedding we went to in the 90s draws near: "Aaaaaaaaaaaah, Aaaaaaaaah".....
And then it ends. Well actually it slows down to a tempo that's so slow I could have had twins in the time it took to get from the word "Love" to "Air". But then it just ends. It is the biggest anti climax since Y2K 2000. Yes, they sing it again after the bows where they DEMAND that you get out of your seat and dance (I really hate that. But maybe that's just me). But still! Was not happy Jan/writers of show.
Did I think this show was up to the usual CLOC standard? Not really. But is it worth seeing? Absolutely. Why? Because it's an Australian musical on a big scale (how often does that happen?) and because it really is a feast for the eyes. And Milhalos' performance is worth the ticket alone. And like I said, a member of the general public will most likely be so wowed by what they're seeing as a whole picture, that they won't notice the details. It is a fun night out at the theatre and it is exciting to see something so overtly in-your-face flashy.
Photos: Ben Fon