Update: On March 12, Hale Centre Theatre cancelled performances of Strictly Ballroom through March 30, due to the coronavirus pandemic. On March 17, the company announced that all remaining performances were cancelled.
SANDY — Do you enjoy excellent dancing? Then stop reading now and buy at ticket to Hale Centre Theatre’s current production of Strictly Ballroom. Do you like angry dancing? Then this show has you covered, with no less than TWO angry dancing numbers by the main characters. Overall, the choreography oozed with life and pizzaz. Movement, energy and character.
Based on the 1992 Baz Luhrman film, this stage musical adaptation (with a script by Baz Luhrman and Craig Pearce) tells the story of a young man in Australia who decides dancing by the rules is just not for him. So he takes it upon himself to shake up the staid world of ballroom dancing using forbidden, freestyle moves. The familiar story plays on beats that anyone who’s seen a dance film in the last 40 years will recognize, including young adults flaunting authority, dancing and falling in love. There’s a shy, nerdy girl who transforms into a star and falls for a passionate young leader who learns how to channel his art to fight injustice.
The strength of the show rests on its dancing, and this production has some great choreography. Noah Bradford stars as youthful Aussie Scott Hastings, a young rebel with big dreams. As a dancer, Bradford is spectacular. In a show packed with two hours of dancing, he never failed to shine onstage, expertly executing all of director/choreographer Jennifer Hill Barlow’s movement. Also standing out among the dancing cast was Alexis Burton as Scott’s potential partner, Tina Sparkle. Living up to her character’s name, Burton dazzled in the sizable role and consistently looked like the best dancer in a cast with very little room for improvement.
When it dawned on me that the entire show would be performed in Australian accents, a pit of fear grew in my stomach. But they were good enough. Benjamin J. Henderson, one of two Equity actors in the cast, had the most authentic accent as the villain’s role.
The show is billed as a musical, which is kind of a half-truth. Almost all the singing is done by the narrator Wally (played by Quinn Dietlein, who also served as music director), and includes pop songs like David Bowie’s “Let’s Dance”, Billy Idol’s “Dancing With Myself” and Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time.” For the most part, the songs were catchy and well-chosen and Dietlein gave a powerful performance through the evening’s considerable amount of difficult numbers.
The aforementioned shy girl (and Scott Hasting’s love interest), Fran, was excellently portrayed by Serena Kozusko, who like Bradford is a musical theater major at the University of Utah. Also standing out in the cast was John Graham as Rico, who consistently drew the loudest applause of the evening with his thrilling Latin dancing. After the climax of a particularly spicy paso doble number, the senior citizen next to me leaned over and exclaimed “Where do they find these guys?” Indeed.
One of the best choices Hale made was to finally bring a live band into their space. The expert musicians, consisting of Andrew Glasmacher (drums), Bryan Matthew Hague (guitar), Joshua Larsen (bass), Ann Christensen (keyboard), Derek Crane (sax and clarinet) and Reed Lecheminant (trumpet), added abundant life to the show. While their placement inside the walkways wasn’t ideal, I hope that Hale continues having live music for future productions.
Costumes by MaryAnn Hill were delightful. They included tellingly ’90s outfits like tank tops and tracksuits with enough neon to stop traffic and a dazzling array of flashy dancing competition outfits. I particularly liked the reflective gold outfits worn by the playful and entertaining David Muncy and Melissa Dameron as Wayne Burns and Vanessa Cronin, respectively. Hair and make-up by Trisha Ison was fine overall, except the abundance of ridiculous wigs. Some of those monstrosities deserved their own billing in the program.
It seemed that Barlow and the technical crew might have been overly focused on making everything as much like the film as possible. This showed again in a scene that rapidly switched between Scott dancing with Fran and other partners. It was awkward seeing everyone run into place over and over again in the dimming or dark lights, and it felt like the musical was simply mimicking film cuts instead of discovering a stage solution. Another scene that could have been improved is the Latin bodega scene. While Rico’s dancing was a highlight of the evening, the scene dragged and lacked focus. While the set (by Kacey Udy) did have to navigate some space challenges, the tight packing of the scene into the center of the stage also made it harder to digest.
This is, by far the simplest show, Hale has put on in the round: no flying dwarves or acrobatics this time. I applaud them for just letting the dancing shine. The set mainly consisted of an elevated dance floor, and in a fun twist, the feel of a dance club spread across the entire seating area with patrons seated at several small, round tables.
Simply Ballroom won’t take home any prizes for story originality, but the dancing is tremendous. This is the best show I’ve seen at Hale since 2018, and I highly recommend Strictly Ballroom for anyone who loves dancing, love and life.