Review: Strictly Ballroom at Liverpool Empire ***
The evenings are closing in and Strictly Come Dancing is back on our TV screens in a riot of Saturday night salsa, samba, spandex and sequins.
The telly spectacular’s name was inspired both by the Beeb’s long-running ballroom dancing competition show Come Dancing, and by Baz Luhrmann’s 1992 big screen hit.
And both also collide in this production of the stage musical version of the cinematic romcom, at the Empire as part of an inaugural UK tour, which has modern day Strictly’s dabs all over it.
It’s directed by acerbic judging paddle wielder Craig Revel Horwood, who co-choreographs the dance moves with Strictly’s creative director Jason Gilkison. Not only did both of them grow up in the Australian dance world, but Luhrmann reportedly based his leading characters on a young Gilkison and his dance partner.
Meanwhile former Strictly professional Kevin Clifton, who has forged a new career in musical theatre (he appeared here just four months ago as Cosmo in Singin’ in The Rain), is signed up in the starring role, while 2020 celebrity finalist Maisie Smith puts her Strictly training to good use in her musical theatre debut.
I say Clifton is signed up, but there was disappointment for his fans on the opening night with the Strictly star apparently indisposed.
It was left to his understudy, Matthew Bourne regular Edwin Ray, to try and rip up the floor and the rule book as Scott Hastings, the rebellious genius of the antipodean amateur dance scene whose flashy moves have been denounced by the stuffed tuxedoes of the Australian Federation.
Abandoned by his professional partner less than a month before the Pan-Pacific Championships, Scott is persuaded by gauche beginner Fran (Smith – in ugly duckling mode until, surprise, surprise, she takes off her glasses) to give her a chance to dance his steps, his way, instead.
Strictly Ballroom the Musical. Photos by Ellie Kurttz
Initially reluctant, Scott eventually agrees to train her (closely in the vein of Dirty Dancing, even down to Fran being ticklish). In return, Fran and her fierce Spanish family deliver some life – and dance – lessons to Scott, who slowly comes to realise just what, and who, is really important to him.
There are colourful group dance numbers, there’s backstage bitching and marabou-fringed campery, there’s a dance rival (Benjamin Harrold’s Ken Railings) who has raided the Smashy and Nicey dressing up box, a snarling, panto-esque stage mother (Nikki Belsher) and a plotting, sleazy baddie (an enjoyably bombastic performance from LJMU alumnus Gary Davis). And, of course, there’s a glitterball hanging over Mark Walters’ colour light-fronded set.
Thus, the elements are all there. And yet for some reason, much of the show feels, well, strictly average and somewhat lacklustre.
It lives and dies on the quality of the dance, and while there are plenty of nifty moves from the accomplished cast, some of the dance numbers simply need much more va-va-voom and room to breathe.
The most impressive and rousing scene of the night comes just before the interval where Scott (the unwitting Tony to Fran’s Maria) finds himself in the middle of a family fiesta and is comprehensively schooled in the art of the paso doble.
The audience loves it – and rightly so. More of that please.
Elsewhere, the burgeoning relationship between Scott and Fran doesn’t really convince.
I realise it’s challenging to come in at the last minute and generate an instant connection live on stage, so perhaps Clifton and Smith (who has a sweet singing voice) have more chemistry together.