Phoebe Panaretos talks to MiNDFOOD about finding her feet for the role of Fran in a new theatre version of Strictly Ballroom, working with Baz Luhrmann and, of course, learning the paso doble.
Sashaying onto the stage in all its sparkling, sequined glory this April is the theatre adaptation of one of Australia’s most loved films, Strictly Ballroom. The all-singing, all-dancing production will once again bring to life the inspiring story of a championship ballroom dancer, Scott Hastings, who defies the rules – as well as his family – and Fran, the unlikely heroine who helps him to follow his heart.
It took seven months to find the right leading lady for Strictly Ballroom The Musical, but it was Phoebe Panaretos’ transformation throughout the “exhaustive” audition process that secured her the role of Fran. Relatively new to musical theatre, the Sydney-born actress wasn’t expecting to land many roles, especially a lead.
But from cattle-call auditions with hundreds of people to the daunting callback where she was asked to fill Her Majesty’s Theatre in Melbourne with song, Panaretos grew in determination.
“I never let it get to me; it was always bang on. And once I was in there I wasn’t going to let it go,” the 23-year-old explains.
It was her ability to weather so many tests and hurdles, just as the character Fran has too, that revealed Panaretos’ true star quality, director Baz Luhrmann declared when the all-Australian cast was revealed.
“I am thrilled to be announcing her [Panaretos] in this role, celebrating how resilient and strong she was through the gruelling process of providing she had all that it takes, which she certainly does,” Luhrmann said at the time.
For the newest star of Australian theatre, meeting Luhrmann was a daunting yet rewarding experience.
“He took all of 10 minutes to make me feel comfortable,” says Panaretos. “I know a lot of the other actors in the room felt the same, it was really nice. I felt he got the best out of me from day one, I did my best work and I feel that’s a real credit to him because he really brought it out of me.”
Costume designer Catherine Martin also helped, by placing Panaretos in the final outfit – at that moment, she says, she was able to transform into a confident, triumphant ballroom dancer.
Luhrmann and Martin both belong to the original Strictly Ballroom film team, now creatively reunited to bring the highly competitive world of tango, bogo pogo and cha-cha-cha back to life.
Although young when the movie – starring Tara Morice as Fran – was released in 1992, Panaretos says she grew up watching musicals on weekends.
“I remember watching it with my grandmother; she explained why she felt segregated at that time. I remember thinking how sad that I was hearing about that,” says Panaretos, who is of a Greek-Cypriot background, of the story’s underlying themes of race and belonging in 1980s Australia.
“Everyone can relate to Fran in a way. Everyone has had that moment where they don’t feel they belong, or aren’t in the right outfit. I was always drawn to the story and the romance; the transformation of the ugly duckling outsider to the defiant ballroom dancer in the end. I think her character is beautiful and truthful. Why wouldn’t I want to play such an iconic Australian character?”
What about perfecting the paso doble?
“I’m not a ballroom dancer by any means but I’ve always loved jazz and dance was always encouraged at home,” says Panaretos, whose father ran a disco dancing school in the 1970s.
“We had to learn the paso doble as part of the audition process and I just brought to it everything I could.”
Of her co-star, Thomas Lacey, Panaretos says she’s incredibly lucky. “I don’t know how many chances you get to work alongside someone you get on with so well.”
The pair met at the first auditions and instantly hit it off – six months later, they found themselves happily reunited for the lead roles.
So what can Australian audiences expect from the stage production of one of the country’s most loved films?
“Bigger and better, everything is heightened and magnified and what is unspoken in the film is portrayed in the musical through song,” says Panaretos.
“It’s the same story, the same characters. But things have grown and expanded. Australian audiences will see something really new and exciting and really groundbreaking.”
Strictly Ballroom opens on April 12 at the Lyric Theatre in Sydney.