TORONTO — Mastering dance moves wasn't the only challenge for the sashaying stars of the theatrical show "Strictly Ballroom."
When Gemma Sutton and Sam Lips aren't belting out hits or breaking a sweat with a series of choreographed numbers, they had the task of tackling the distinctive Down Under accent in this musical adaptation of the 1992 Australian screen smash.
"When I was first learning the show, I would go out and order a coffee and I would try to do the dialect," recalled Lips, an American, while seated alongside his British co-star Sutton.
"You don't move your lips," he added, tightening his smile and quickening his speech to showcase the signature Australian drawl.
"Part of the reason I wanted to do the show is to learn a new skill because I hadn't done Australian before," added Sutton. "The whole thing about dialects is that it's musical. So, once you've got the music of the dialect, it falls into place."
Both Sutton and Lips grew up big fans of director Baz Luhrmann's "Strictly Ballroom." The musical version is a return to its stage roots, as Luhrmann first devised the story as a stage play with a group of students at the National Institute of Dramatic Art in Sydney in 1984.
"Strictly Ballroom" centres on the odd-couple pairing of championship ballroom dancer Scott with Fran, a shy, awkward, left-footed local mesmerized by his moves. Dialling up the fun of the fish-out-of-water tale are the outlandish sequined getups and towering hairdos sported by the performers — all punctuated by a toe-tapping pop score.
The movie premiered at the 1992 Cannes Film Festival, where it was a runner-up for the Palme d'Or prize, and went on to become an international smash. As "Strictly Ballroom" marks its 25th anniversary this year, it remains one of Australia's biggest-ever movie hits and cultural exports.
With the popularity of televised dance-competition series like "Dancing with the Stars" and "Strictly Come Dancing" in her native U.K., Sutton said the "Strictly Ballroom" musical is both timely and resonant.
"I always think when I watch those shows that it's about a celebrity coming together with a professional dancer — so someone who can't dance learning how to dance — and that's very much the same as this story," said Sutton.
"Here's Scott, this incredibly technical dancer, and here's Fran, who can't dance. And through the relationship with each other, they obviously learn to dance together in this incredible way; plus they find each other and themselves. It's a lovely story about identity and self-expression."
Songs from the "Strictly Ballroom" soundtrack, which featured hits like the '70s disco tune "Love Is In The Air" and '80s ballad "Time After Time," are also in the musical, joining new tracks from Australian artists like Eddie Perfect and Sia.
"I think what the writers have done so brilliantly is they've taken those nostalgic songs from the film and they've woven them so beautifully into the story where they actually do comment on the plot and they do further the story," said Lips. "We have new songs that dive into the characters' heads, they get deeper into the relationships that are happening, and also further the plot."
At its heart, dancing remains centre stage in "Strictly Ballroom," both in the choreography and as a metaphor for life and love.
"Dancing in ballroom is so about the chemistry and moving and learning how the body moves and that was interesting to me," said Sutton.
"Nowadays, in social life we don't dance together, do we? Like they did in the good old days. And that's how you learned how the chemistry between two people worked."
"Strictly Ballroom" is onstage at the Princess of Wales Theatre in Toronto until June 25.
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Lauren La Rose, The Canadian Press