Baz Luhrmann’s Strictly Ballroom The Musical plays Grand Opera House, York, until Saturday, 7.30pm plus 2.30pm, Wednesday and Saturday. Box office: atgtickets.com/york. Also Leeds Grand Theatre, July 3 to 8, 7.30pm and 2.30pm Wednesday and Saturday matinees. Box office: 0113 243 0808 or leedsheritagetheatres.com.
NOT to be confused with the glitterball dazzle of the BBC’s Strictly Come Dancing, the 2023 tour of Baz Luhrmann’s Strictly Ballroom nevertheless has Strictly royalty at its core, like writing running through a stick of rock.
Australian-born judge Craig Revel Horwood both directs Luhrmann and Craig Pearce’s musical and reactivates his Aussie roots for the voiceover introduction, delivered with camp exaggeration and frank humour.
2018 Strictly champ Kevin Clifton is “thrilled to finally be fulfilling a lifelong ambition to play Scott Hastings”, donning the golden matador-dandy jacket for the ten-month tour.
“When I was ten years old, I first watched the movie that would become my favourite film of all time. This is my dream role,” he enthused – and boy, does it show in his every move, back leading the cast after missing a couple of shows with a foot injury.
We knew he could dance, not only from his seven seasons in Strictly, but when blazing a trail across the Grand Opera House stage in Burn The Floor. Should you have seen him in Dirty Dancing The Musical in London, or on tour as Cosmo Brown in Singin’ In The Rain, Stacee Jaxx in Rock Of Ages or The Artillery Man in The War Of The Worlds, you will know he can sing too.
Now comes a corking Aussie accent as Kevin from Grimsby becomes Scott Hastings, the ballroom wild card from a dance family (like Clifton himself), who falls foul of the Australian Federation with his radical, rebellious moves.
The Open champion-in-waiting instead finds himself dancing with Fran (Faye Brookes, so pink and perky and perfect in her previous York visit in Legally Blonde The Musical). At the outset, Fran is handier with the cleaning regime than as a Bambi novice on the dancefloor, but she is plucky beneath the reserved, bespectacled surface, and step by step, the unlikely pair inspire each other to defy both family expectation and ballroom convention, casting specs and fear alike aside.
Set in 1990, Luhrmann’s funny yet furious, glitzy but gritty, sometimes silly and often highly camp work is a gorgeous romantic comedy, Cinderella tale and rebel with a cause story rolled into a dance drama of the kind beloved by Bollywood. In Revel Horwood’s hands it revels in that campery, being fruitier than Drew McOnie’s 2016 British premiere at the West Yorkshire Playhouse, putting you as much in mind of The Rocky Horror Show or Rock Of Ages.
Clifton’s Scott is on the edge, his dancing so electric, to the point where if you touched him you would receive a shock, such is his frustration with the strictures of his obsessive mother Shirley (Nikki Belsher).
A grotesque diva of a ballroom teacher with a shark’s smile, her ruthlessness has shrunk husband Doug (a rather too young-looking James McHugh on press night, understudying Mark Sangster) to taciturn timidity.
Amid the battle of Hastings, rule-breaker Scott is also determined to defy the bent judging of Barry Fife (Benjamin Harrold, understudying Gary Davis as more of a reprobate young spiv than a seedy old stickler).
Scott must follow his heart, answer to his true calling and find true love. Out of the shadows steps Coronation Street star and Dancing On Ice runner-up Brookes’s Fran in a typically terrific demonstration of her triple threat skills as singer, dancer and actor. Her duet of Beautiful Surprise with Clifton is a second-half high point.
Shirley and Barry are not their only barriers, so too are Danielle Cato’s aptly named dancer Tina Sparkle and, at first, Fran’s protective Hispanic dad, Rico (Stylianos Thomadakis, the best of the first-night understudies, again for an older-looking Jose Agudo).
From disdain to guiding light, he shows Scott how the paso doble should be danced, leading into a wonderful, pedal-to-the-floor ensemble finale to the first half. This turns into the show’s best routine, shot through with machismo but leavened by humour and ultimately glee, under the spell of Revel Horwood and Jason Gilkison’s witty, swish, elegant, sleek and fun choreography.
As with fellow very Australian musical movie The Adventures Of Priscilla, Queen Of The Desert, Strictly Ballroom is rampantly ripe to bear full fruit on the musical theatre stage.
It does so by bolstering the film’s hit songs, such as Time After Time, a swoon of an Hispanic take on Perhaps Perhaps Perhaps by Karen Mann’s Abuela, and the climactic Love Is In The Air, with new musical numbers by David Foster, Sia Furler, Mozzela Neff-U, Linda Thompson and Luhrmann himself.
Mark Walters, best remembered in York for his set on the tracks for Berwick Kaler’s Dick Whittington (And His Meerkat) at the National Railway Museum in 2015, excels here too, both in set design and costumes.
Beautifully lit by fellow York Theatre Royal alumnus Richard G Jones, the domed set evokes the glamour of the ballroom dancefloor, while the clever insertion of boards that pull out enables swift changes of scene to bars, homes and a dance studio.
Barry Fife’s boudoir cameos are an amusing pop-up too and a screen backdrop is put to good use in depicting Australian skies, townscapes and landscapes.
In a week shadowed by the death of Australia’s greatest comic export, Barry Humphries, whose The Man Behind The Mask tour opened at this very theatre last April, Luhrmann and Revel Horwood combine to put an Aussie smile on the face once more with razzle dazzle aplenty, aided by Clifton and Brookes, as lovable as Fred and Ginger.