“Strictly Ballroom” started out on stage: Baz Luhrmann’s cult movie about competitive dancing was originally a student play. His own musical adaptation, revised since its Australian premiere two years ago, brings it full circle but, in doing so, loses its tongue-in-cheek tone. Despite a lush staging from choreographer-director Drew McOnie, this out-of-town tryout in Leeds sees its irony dwindle and, as it does, Luhrmann’s story of an against-the-odds triumph stops being subversive and starts being simplistic, if not sentimental.
At heart, Luhrman’s plot is both an ugly-duckling tale and a fable about freedom of expression. Disqualified for dancing his own non-regulation steps, the buckish Scott Hastings (Sam Lips) sets out to defy the sport’s ruling federation and its rigid restrictions. Having lost his ambitious partner to a flashy rival — the perma-tanned peroxide blonde Ken Railings (Gary Watson) — he trains up a willing novice, Fran (Gemma Sutton) and, with a little help from her Paso Doble-ing parents, the wallflower blossoms. A cleaner with two left feet becomes the belle of ballroom dancing. Terry Johnson’s revised book might be clumsy in places, but the film’s message survives well and truly intact — above all else, it says, dance to your own beat.
McOnie does that beautifully. A rare breed in Britain — the choreographer-director — the 31-year-old threads movement throughout. It’s rare to see dance so well integrated into a musical, and there are some inventive sequences here. Scott’s defiant solo, alone in the studio, becomes a dance-off against three reflections, and old home-movie footage comes to jerky, stop-motion life. When Fran cracks her first lunge, Lips cradles her like a cushion and Scott’s father Doug (Stephen Matthews) loses himself in the freedom of dancing for fun.
If the score, a mix of forgettable new numbers by Eddie Perfect and 80s jukebox classics like Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time,” is somewhat soupy, it’s counterbalanced again and again by exhilarating choreography. This is a show that can burst into dance, and Fernando Miro’s clatter-clapping Paso Doble is as much a showstopper as any eleven o’clock lungbuster.
For all that it spoofs dance, “Strictly Ballroom” has huge faith in it too. Behind the glittery gobstopper gladrags of Catherine Martin’s imported original costumes, there’s a specter of old-school Hollywood hanging around. Soutra Gilmour’s rust-encrusted scaffold is topped by the MGM logo, its light bulbs blinking, and silhouetted dancers in tails and frills look down from above, an air of old glamour against the garish fare below. Occasionally couples trot past like dressage horses, bathed in a gold showbiz glow.
Yet that earnest edge chips away at Luhrmann’s original. What’s kitsch on screen becomes camp onstage and, as it does, that sharp subversive edge falls away, as it did with “Hairspray” and “Priscilla Queen of the Desert.”
All three films centered on some kind of performance, be it dance or drag, and their theatrical elements were too big for the screen. What’s gaudy and brash blends back in on the stage — not unreal, just larger than life — and without that garish acidity, the irony of “Strictly Ballroom” dissipates.
Luhrman’s plot needs it. It’s so archly conventional — an antagonist that collapses too easily, a romance that forgives and forgets in a shot — that it sends up its own sentimentality and simplicity. The moment it takes its tongue out of its cheek, it merely adheres to the narrative structures and cliches it’s knocking. The grand finale, a big lug of Vanda and Young’s “Love is in the Air,” is sickly with schmaltz. That leads McOnie into crowdpleasing corners: cute kids and mass clap-a-longs, even some ill-advised audience participation, as high camp gives way to low cheer.