Dirty Dancing

Published April 17, 2008

After a long preview period and a considerable amount of hype, the stars were out last night at the Aldwych for the opening night of the stage show of Dirty Dancing, the 80s film that resides in the video collection of most under 30-year-old women. Caroline Bishop, herself one of the aforementioned, went along hoping to be swept off her feet by a dirty dancer – oh, and to watch the show…

The classic story on stage is how this theatrical adaptation of the immensely popular 1987 film is billed. True enough, this dance musical (it is not a musical of the usual variety, as the leads don’t sing) includes every scene from the celluloid original, every line, every facial expression almost.

The first half in particular is strictly faithful to the film, which is – in case you avoided it first time around – the coming of age story of Frances ‘Baby’ Houseman, an idealistic tomboy teenager and daddy’s girl, who holidays at Kellerman’s holiday camp in New York state with her family in 1963. Dreaming of joining the Peace Corps and putting the world to rights, Baby’s idealism is challenged by misunderstood dance instructor Johnny Castle, who introduces her to dirty dancing and another side of life. When Baby agrees to stand in for Johnny’s ‘knocked-up’ dance partner Penny, the pair fall in love.

On stage, the roles of Baby and Johnny, made famous by quirky Jennifer Grey and the mullet-haired Patrick Swayze, are played by Georgina Rich, in only her second West End outing, and former Australian Ballet star Josef Brown, who originated the role in the Australian production of the show. Both do a good impression of the movie leads (girls, Brown’s rippling torso is even more impressive than Swayze’s), though they are limited in what they can bring to the roles – even particular instances of body language well-known from the film are mirrored on stage. The translation also extends to the outdoor scenes, in which Baby and Johnny practise their lifts; large-scale projections are used to recreate the famous log and lake, though a little imagination and knowledge of the film comes in handy.

Where the show comes into its own is through the live dancing; Brown and the long-legged Nadia Coote as Penny are especially impressive, and Rich’s transformation from flat-footed tomboy to stiletto-heeled dancer, like Grey in the film, makes us girls feel maybe we could do it too. While most of the evocative 60s music is used as a soundtrack, as in the film, the live version of the final song, (I’ve Had) The Time Of My Life, is a stand-out.

The show does offer new scenes, predominantly in Act 2, which add to, rather than replace, the originals. An attempt is made to give more of a flavour of the political climate of the time, as Neil, Kellerman’s grandson and Baby’s inept suitor, gets involved in the civil rights movement, and Baby chastises Johnny for his indifferent attitude to voting. More is made too of Baby’s family, through extra scenes between her parents which reveal more about Mr Houseman’s aversion to Johnny. Though these scenes are unfamiliar to fanatics of the film, it is nice to see a variation to the faithful plot-following of Act 1.

But ultimately, the audience came to see what they already knew, as proved by the shrieks and whoops which greeted the final scene: the now worldly-wise and slightly corrupted Baby dances with her bit of rough, Johnny, in public and wins the approval of her daddy. Aw, shucks.

CB