Not every Tony-nominated musical can stand the test of time and in the case of Ballroom, a Broadway hit from 1979, the passing years have eroded the show’s charm. It’s one of the pitfalls of ageing and while Ballroom’s narrative may tackle that subject well, it was crying out for a facelift during last night’s European premiere.
Set in Brooklyn, New York, it’s difficult to pinpoint a precise era in the first act. A thrift store location, coupled with 1950s costumes, doesn’t scream “1970s” and there are no verbal references until a mention of ‘The Hustle’ (a dance originating in the days of Disco).
Even with a glitter-ball hanging overhead, the score avoids the raw energy of the Seventies, never accelerating beyond the tempo of a vintage tea dance. At the time of Ballroom’s debut, I imagine it was a welcome respite from the ubiquity of the Bee Gees but now, almost 40 years later, the show needs a makeover for the 21st century.
It’s a rom-com that’s well-meaning and full of good intention, aiming to inspire the older generation to embrace life and beat loneliness. Bea Asher is a forlorn, middle-aged widow, who is nagged by her friend, Angie, to brave the Stardust Ballroom and live a little.
Jessica Martin’s portrayal of Bea is heart-warming, taking the character from shy and nervous to confident and defiant. In the Stardust, she quickly finds her feet, as well as her rhythm, leading her straight into the arms of Al Rossi (played with finesse by Cory Peterson).
Just when we think Bea’s new life is perfect, Al makes a startling confession – one which seizes the show’s initial message of female empowerment and plunges it head-first into an acid bath. Back in the 1970s, Ballroom was probably rubber-stamped by every feminist north of 42nd Street but I can’t imagine Emma Watson aspiring to end up in Bea’s [dancing] shoes anytime soon (although I’d expect her to adopt a no-judgement stance towards the character’s decisions).
The show’s biggest and best number is ‘Fifty Percent’, a poignant tune passionately delivered by Martin, about settling for half of something you love if you can’t have it all. That’s great advice if we’re talking about a mouth-watering cake, but in the context offered in Ballroom, I find it negative and depressing. Many others will feel differently: the polarising narrative challenges the status quo, exploring the boundaries of what constitutes acceptable behaviour for women.
Developed by Michael Bennett (the Tony Award-winning co-creator of A Chorus Line), it’s refreshing to watch a musical about middle-aged adults which actually stars middle-aged adults. I’ve had my fill of watching 20-somethings play dress-up and Ballroom is a much needed dose of realism.
Martin and Peterson have a believable chemistry, rivalling that of any young lovers, and Natalie Moore-Williams is flawless as Angie, the straight-talking, vivacious New Yorker who knows exactly what she wants. We all need an Angie in our lives: a friend to drag us out of our comfort zone and shove us into bold, new adventures.
Director Gerald Armin, and choreographer, Nancy Kettle, utilize every inch of the Waterloo East Theatre’s stage to showcase the cast’s dancing skills. The ensemble numbers are fabulous, not only in footwork but also in personality, emphasising each of the Stardust regulars’ individual characteristics as well as the group’s camaraderie. Look out for the Lindy Hop and Tango, along with the playful hip-swinging of Lightfeet (Gary Freer), Shirley (Colette Kelly) and Scooter (Gerry Tebbutt).
The production will make you chuckle but some of the stronger gags fall flat. This is due to the overall pacing of the show – the second act, in particular, seems far too rushed – and the score works against the cast by drowning out the funniest one-liners.
With a bit of a revamp, Ballroom could be something special. In its current guise, it’s a vintage gem that’s been put back on display without a full polish, desperately in need of upcycling as well as restoration. The musical should take a steer from its own story: in the same way Bea needed to step out of the past and into the present, Ballroom ought to sashay in her footsteps.
Cast: Adam Anderson, Tim Benton, Annie Edwards, Jill Francis, Garry Freer, Collette Kelly, Olivia Maffett, Jessica Martin, Natalie Moore-Williams, Danielle Morris, James Pellow, Cory Peterson, Dudley Rogers and Gerry Tebbutt Theatre: Waterloo East Director: Gerald Armin Writers: Jerome Kass (book), Billy Goldenberg (music) and Alan and Marilyn Bergman (lyrics) Performance Dates: 12th May – 4th June 2017