Review by Gemma Keliher
If you’re like me, you often find yourself sitting in a theatre not quite sure what to expect of the night ahead. Queensland Ballet’s production of Derek Deane’s Strictly Gershwin is far from your traditional ballet, and whether you know what you’re walking into or not the show is full of surprises. Created to celebrate the music of George and Ira Gershwin, Strictly Gershwin blends song and dance in a lovingly crafted tribute not just to the music, but to the glitz and glamour of the 1930’s. Pulling the timeless music of the Gershwin’s from the 20’s and 30’s and through the partnership of the Queensland Symphony Orchestra, Queensland Ballet dancers, and special guest artists, Strictly Gershwin brings new life to the music some 100 years later. The grandeur that we associate with this era was still felt, as you listened to the sounds of an unseen orchestra warming up, before the red curtain of the Lyric Theatre lifted to expose the Queensland Symphony Orchestra taking up the entire back half of the stage, tonight guided by conductor Michael England (who’s personality made for much entertainment in itself).
With any tribute show there is always going to be an element of showcase, designed to entertain with a clear start and end to each piece and no real narrative through line. With the only real connection between the pieces being the Gershwin score across Broadway and in Hollywood, Strictly Gershwin was always going to have this feel as each piece moved us through different styles and genres. What I found worked very well was it felt more evolutionary than it did showcase, with a great flow of energy throughout both Acts that ebbed and flowed rather than jilting between each piece. This I think speaks to the well-crafted placement of each piece, and the seamless blending of orchestral music, singing, and dancing. The show takes the audience on a journey to moments where the energy would crescendo but then lull back into gentler, quieter moments that shone a spotlight on individual elements. This gave us those grand, fanfare moments where everything was happening on stage at once while then allowing us to take the time and appreciate the individual talents, and I appreciated that these moments of nuance were able to still be found.
Derek Deane’s choreography allowed the Queensland Ballet dancers to explore such a variety of styles throughout the show, in a way that I haven’t seen many of them perform. We moved from more classical ballet, through to ballroom, jazz, and tap, and I was thoroughly impressed at the adaptability of the dancers’ skillsets, though all while keeping the Queensland Ballet flavour in each style. Guest Artists Bill Simpson, Kris Kerr, and Rachael Walsh made for audience favourites as Tap Artists, delivering exceptional performances of Simpson’s tap choreography. Working beautifully with the dancers and Queensland Symphony Orchestra were the flawless vocals of Guest Artists Luke Kennedy, Naomi Price, Ben Mingay, and Irena Lysiuk (who isn’t a part of the main program, kudos to her incredible talent if she had stepped in for the evening). Their voices blended well together and there were lovely moments where they were given the spotlight for us to truly appreciate the lyrics. Another crowd favourite was Daniel Le as a guest pianist, who brought us into Act II with a standout performance in ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ that showed wonderful skill and musicality.
A huge highlight throughout the entire show was, of course, Roberta Guidi di Bagno’s costumes. The beautiful colours, the luxe fabrics, and of course the endless amount of glittery, sequined, and sparkly embellishments were simply stunning. My personal favourites were the golden floral dress and sunset tones of the costumes in Act II’s ‘Summertime’, as well as the white dresses with never-ending sparkle that we saw in Act I’s ballroom number ‘Shall We Dance’.
The show itself opened with a beautiful overture, and gorgeous golden glittery costumes that gave us a taste of what to expect for the evening. I loved the pairing of Neneka Yoshida and Kohei Iwamoto in ‘Someone To Watch Over Me’, they brought a genuine sweet and gentle energy that was beautifully matched by Irena Lysiuk’s vocals. The first of Kris Kerr and Bill Simpson’s tap numbers in ‘Fascinatin’ Rhythm’ brought a new energy as soon as they appeared in full tails and black and white tap shoes, looking like they had just stepped off the silver screen. Their joy throughout all their appearances was infectious, not only was their talent evident but their stage presence was a huge hit. ‘The Man I Love’ was a very moving number, with Lucy Green and Patricio Revé delivering a great piece of storytelling, tying in well to the lyrics performed by Naomi Price. As soon as you see dancing that looks effortless you know how high the skill level involved is, and Green and Revé moved together with ease. Wrapping up the first act was a longer narrative piece for ‘An American in Paris’, and in case you forgot where this was set, the Eiffel tower costumes, mimes, nuns, and other very French looking characters will remind you. This was a fun, campy piece with Chiara Gonzalez and Vito Bernasconi looking perfectly the part of the lead characters finding romance. Act II brought us gently back in with a lovely classical number, before ramping up to our tap trio backed by Queensland Ballet dancers, this time donning their tap shoes. ‘It Ain’t Necessarily So’ brought a change in tone with Laura Tosar and Victor Estévez performing a ballroom number in red, showcasing their artistry well together. Another one of my favourite pieces was ‘Summertime’ with Chiara Gonzalez and Alexander Idaszak, another effortless pairing and everything about this piece was magical for me. Similar to the end of the first act, we were given a nice finale with some reprisals of earlier pieces, giving every performer the recognition they deserved, before building up a big crescendo of energy right up to the final curtain bow.
Strictly Gershwin was an absolute spectacular that brought the glitz and glam of a by-gone era, and if nothing else you will be mesmorised by the sparkle. Some people come to the theatre for a night of escapism, some come simply to be entertained, and this production absolutely does both. Strictly Gershwin is not just a tribute to some of the greats, but a huge celebration of current talent that will have you bopping your head and smiling all night long.