I don’t know if it’s been spotted already, but Baz Luhrmann’s Strictly Ballroom has strange parallels with Wagner’s Die Meistersinger. In both, a young hero defies hidebound tradition to triumph in a national competition and wins the heart of a woman. To be honest, I find more fun in Wagner than in this laborious attempt to turn a charming 1992 movie into a fully fledged stage musical.
This version, with a book by Luhrmann and Craig Pearce, is different from the movie in many ways. For a start, it comes equipped with an MC who both acts as a chorus and sings many of the show’s standards, such as Love Is in the Air and Perhaps, Perhaps, Perhaps. The role is played by Will Young, who has an engaging presence and who, in his sequined catsuit, resembles a louche version of Bruce Forsyth.
There is, however, something irritating about the character’s determination to underscore all of the jokes so that a jaw-breaking plot twist is greeted with: “Well, that was unexpected.” At the end, Young also urges us, in the tones of a holiday-camp redcoat, to: “Feel free to stand up and dance with us.” It not only manipulates a standing ovation, but also seems oddly bullying for a show that attacks the didacticism of a previous era.
The basic storyline remains the same as in the film. The talented young Scott bucks the rules imposed in the 1980s by Australian dance federations and invents his own moves. Eventually, he finds a willing partner in the shy, awkward Fran, who, losing both her specs and her spots, proves equally uninhibited. I have no problems with a Cinderella story, and Jonny Labey as Scott and Zizi Strallen as Fran are lithe, beguiling dancers. While Drew McOnie choreographs well, it is a sign of the coarseness of his production that Strallen is forced to react to a kiss from Scott with the wide-eyed astonishment of someone who has spent her life in a nunnery.
Scott’s pushy mum is played by the normally excellent Anna Francolini with an orgy of face-pulling that would look excessive in a national gurning competition. Scott’s initial partner, Liz, is played as a hard-faced egotist whose favourite word is “wanker”, and even the dancer supposed to replace her, Tina Sparkle, is depicted as a vapid ballroom princess. You get the sense this is a show that doesn’t much like women.
It does, however, yield the moment of ecstasy I look for in a musical. That comes when Fran’s father teaches Scott the paso doble. Fernando Mira, with his poker back, drumming heels and economy of movement, gives us a masterclass in Spanish dance and, unwittingly, upends the show’s thesis by proving the value of disciplined tradition.
While Mira, aided by Eve Polycarpou as Fran’s gran, ushers us into another world, we are soon back in that of corrupt ballroom competitions. It is a sign of the show’s lazy liberalism that the dance federation’s tradition-worshipping president, played by Gerard Horan in an orange wig, declares: “Maybe I’ll go into politics.” Since Donald Trump has got where he is by breaking all the rules, the joke makes little sense and symbolises the production’s benign vulgarity.
• At the Piccadilly theatre, London, until 21 July. Box office: 0844-871 7630.