The much-loved hit show Strictly Ballroom The Musical opened at Brisbane’s QPAC theatre this month. Ingrid Nelson caught up with leading lady Phoebe Panaretos, to discover what audiences can expect from the show.

A career in musical theatre is not for the faint hearted, just ask VCA performing arts graduate, Phoebe Panaretos. But when you land a lead role in Baz Luhrmann’s smash hit stage show Strictly Ballroom, as she has, the highs are well worth the lows.

“This has been a big break for me,” says Phoebe. “Most of the leads have worked their way up or are celebrities in other forums but Baz took a chance on me, an unknown. It’s scary and daunting and exciting to be in the top 10 per cent in the country.”

Having always had a passion for singing, Phoebe started vocal training at a very early age, her idols including big voices such as Shirley Bassey and Barbara Streisand.

Phoebe-Panaretos“I was obsessed with gospel singers and was known as the little girl with the big voice,” says Phoebe.

Growing up in Sydney, Phoebe went to Newton School of Performing Arts, topping the state in drama. She then moved to Melbourne and graduated with a music theatre degree in singing, dancing and acting from the esteemed Victorian College of Arts.

“After graduating, I auditioned for about a year, and came close a few times but didn’t quite get there,” says Phoebe.

Her big break came the following year, when after a long and arduous audition process, she received the news she had been selected to play leading lady Fran in the new hit musical Strictly Ballroom.

“The auditions went for about eight months and were challenging and exhausting and high pressure but it brought out the fighter in me. I was a forerunner for the eight months and I felt confident towards the end that I could take it.” she says.

“I remember when I got the news, I had been rehearsing with Baz 20 minutes earlier and I didn’t have much left to give. I was in the middle of  the street when he rang me with the news and I was screaming with excitement. It’s a moment I will never forget.”

“I was obsessed with gospel singers and was known as the little girl with the big voice.”“I was obsessed with gospel singers and was known as the little girl with the big voice.”

So what’s it like working with Baz I ask?

“Baz Luhrmann is incredible. Every day of rehearsals was a wonderful experience. He is really nurturing to actors and treats them like they are so important. He is truly so wonderful and creative and happy to try any idea you might have. I just adore him and want to work with him again in the future.”

But there are sacrifices to be the best in the field and the reality is far removed from simply turning up and performing on the night.

“It’s a complete sacrifice,” says Phoebe. “You are on the opposite schedule to the rest of the world. There are days when I can’t speak because I am resting my voice. You have to be very disciplined and you have to be able to take criticism and rejection. It’s all part of the industry.”

But for now Phoebe is enjoying every moment of the experience and learning as much as she can.

“I love the fact that this musical is completely ours. I got the opportunity to create a new character and I have a hand in creating a musical that will be around for many years to come.”

And if the reaction from Sydney and Melbourne audiences is anything to go by, Brisbane is in for a real treat when the show hits QPAC later this month.

“Strictly Ballroom is a really beautiful and triumphant love story above all else,” she says. “It’s about overcoming challenges and differences and defying the odds.

“Scott and Fran sing a beautiful duet by David Foster who has written for Whitney Houston, Barbara Streisand and Sia. He wrote a beautiful surprise song for us called Leap of Faith, so we felt very special.

“Needless to say, the dancing is phenomenal and the award-winning costumes are spectacular.”

Phoebe is very excited to be nominated in the 2014 Helpmann Awards as Best Female In A Musical for her portrayal of Fran in the musical.

Something tells me this is not the last you will see of this talented performer.