Performing Arts
© Mike Keenan

Strictly Ballroom - Aussie Dance & Delight (Princess of Wales Theatre, Toronto)

Amazing costumes, photo by Alastair Muir

In Toronto, sitting comfortably in the crowded David Mirvish's Princess of Wales Theatre, as I watched the show, I thought of Toller Cranston, the gutsy Canadian figure skater and painter whose on-ice daring fashioned a new level of artistry in men's figure skating. He, like Scott Hastings (Sam Lipps), the gifted ballroom dancer in Baz Luhrmann's North American premiere of Strictly Ballroom The Musical, defied the establishment's rules to follow his heart, the theme of this entertaining musical.

As in the 1992 film, the comical characters, all superbly stereotyped, are played to their hyperbolic excess by the gifted cast. Fran, Scott's eventual partner and love interest, is handled exceptionally well by Gemma Sutton in true Pygmalion fashion. Scott's family, his demanding mother Shirley (Tamsin Carroll) and wimpy father Doug (Stephen Mathews), Shirley's affected business partner at Kendall's Dance Studio, Les (Richard Grieve), and villainous Barry Fife (Julius D'Silva), the ruler of the dance Federation in over-the-top World Wrestling Federation manner, are all superb. However, it's Fran's parents, Rico (Fernando Mira) and Abuela (Eve Polycarpou) who bring down the house at the end of Act 1 with their dramatic interpretation of Paso Doble bullfight music, Mira strutting and dancing flamenco-like with Polycarpou pounding Scott's chest and telling him to follow the rhythm of his heart. Good advice indeed.

The singing is spirited, including memorable numbers such as Love is in the Air, Perhaps Perhaps Perhaps and Time After Time. But, it's the exotic costumes worn by the dancers that are amazingly audacious as befits the likes of Tina Sparkle (Charlotte Gooch) who might blind one with her namesake sequins that constantly glitter on stage. Kudos to costume designer Catherine Martin, Luhrmann's spouse, who is the real star of the show.

Set in Australia in 1985, apparently at a time of hippie-like "big hair" and the flamboyant costumes, Luhrmann suggests that "... despite all the sequins, outrageous hairdos and classic Hollywood musical plotting, the simple message that 'there isn't only one way to cha cha cha' and that 'within us all we have the true potential to dance through life with our own steps', is something that appeals to all of us. The message that life doesn't have to be strictly ballroom is something I hope our audiences will carry with them as they dance down the aisles."

Paso Doble finale, photo by Alastair Muir Paso Doble, male dancers, photo by Alastair Muir Scott and Fran, Paso Doble, photo by Alastair Muir

Strictly Ballroom sign, photo by Mike Keenan Scott in gold outfit, photo by Alastair Mui Sam Lipps as Scott, photo by Alastair Muir

And dance down the aisles they do, in one case, transporting two willing yet surprised people to the stage and making them part of the cast. Eventually, all of the roadblocks to success are removed one by one and Scott and Fran capture the Ballroom Dancing Pan-Pacific Championship like Torvill and Dean at the 1984 Winter Olympics magically skating to Maurice Ravel's Boléro.

Our Sunday matinee performance was good fun and at the concluding Love Is In The Air number, there was an enthusiastic standing ovation that lasted for quite a while. Nonetheless, the couple behind us kept us appraised of the 'Jays score in Tampa - true multi-taskers).

Strictly Ballroom plays through Sunday June 25 at the Princess of Wales Theatre, 300 King St. West, Toronto, tickets available online at or by phone 416-872-1212. Mirvish has great entertainment to follow including Beautiful, The Carole King Musical which starts June 27.

Where to stay in Toronto is often a headache, and hotels have become expensive. For one-third the cost of a downtown hotel, we stayed at Victoria's Mansion, a guest house built over one-hundred years ago, located in Church Street Village, an easy two-block walk from the Wellesley subway station and only a few streets below Bloor, close to myriad shops, cafés and restaurants.

Although breakfast was not included, our room had a fridge, coffee-maker and a microwave. It was clean with a sparkling washroom. There are 16 units there at 68 Gloucester on a lovely tree-lined street, and I was amazed at how quiet it was at night. We would gladly return there again. (

Mirvish When the film premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 1992, it seemingly came out of nowhere. Its director, Baz Luhrmann, was completely unknown and had never made a film before. Yet, the film made a big splash at Cannes, winning a 15-minute standing ovation. This led to it being shown at the Toronto International Film Festival that fall where it won the People's Choice Award - which has always been a harbinger of great things to come. (All People's Choice winners have gone on to great international success, some even winning the Oscar for Best Picture.) From Toronto, it conquered the world; dancing its way into the hearts of audiences to the tune of over $80 million at the box office, making it one of the most successful Australian films of all time.

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