Writer: Eleanor Bergstein
Director: Federico Bellone
Reviewer: Jim Gillespie
Almost 30 years ago a low budget film, by a new studio, with no major stars, gave us a fairly hackneyed tale of romance crossing social divides on the momentum provided by 1960’s music and dance. For some reason, this has lodged in the folklore of several generations as the baby boomer Romeo and Juliet and acquired a cult following which continues to grow. Apparently, I’ve had the Time of my Life is the third most popular song played at UK funerals.
Manchester hosted the latest residency of the UK touring production at its elegant Palace Theatre. The show has been touring almost non-stop since it’s Australian resurrection as a stage show in 2004, and translations are available in most major languages, on most continents, most nights of the week. This is theatre on an international and industrial scale.
The stage production faithfully follows the plot of the film original. Frances “Baby” Houseman is spending the summer vacation in a Catskill Mountains hotel resort, with her older sister and her parents. She is introduced to dance, love, and sex through a relationship with the hotel stud, Johnny Castle, against the backdrop of the political and social turmoil of the early sixties. Kennedy is president, Vietnam is a remote foreign war, and the pop music is upbeat and optimistic.
The 1960s musical soundtrack provides the adrenalin for this show, but it is thoroughly upstaged by the dancing. The energy of the ensemble routines is pulsating, with Carlie Milner as Penny Johnson leading the female line with electrifying flair. While this is a show more defined by its dance routines than its music, credit should be given to Michael Kent and Daniela Pobega for their singing, and to Lizzie Ottley, as Baby’s sister Lisa, for her excruciating hula routine.
Lewis Griffiths as Johnny is a mean and moody stage presence, becoming a sinuous athletic demon during the ensemble dance routines. Katie Hartland, as “Baby”, has a challenge to convey the journey her character makes from naivety to maturity, and from gawky waltzer to raunchy dancer. Her dances with Johnny should set the trajectory for this development, but they largely fail to convince. While the moves may fulfill the choreography, there is little sense of any chemistry developing between the two leading characters.
This is a slick production. The set is cleverly constructed, and multiple revolves ensure that scenes flow seamlessly into one another. Furniture and props glide on and off, lanterns and trees fly in and out, lighting nails the mood, and lightening storms crackle and whizz when required. Projection is used sparingly but effectively. Only the use of a projected lake for Johnny and baby to practice their dance lift causes a moment’s bafflement. The audience decides it is a good joke and laugh heartily. Alternatively, one of the key emotional highlights may have been sacrificed.
Inevitably, the transition from screen to stage involves some compromises. Nuance has been traded for grand gesture, and some of the edge and tension of the original has been sanitised. Nobody comes to see Dirty Dancing for its insights into the political and social realities of the 1960’s, even if these remain a backdrop to the central storyline. Martin Luther King and the growing Civil Rights movement are referenced several times, but the issues are never central to the plot. One of the lead characters undergoes a botched illegal abortion but this does not give the show the credibility of Vera Drake. Instead, it remains a plot device to define the moral ground of the key characters.
Ultimately, the show is a feel-good, pop culture, indulgence: pure cheesy popcorn. Not suitable as a steady diet, but harmless as an occasional treat.
Runs until 15 October, 2016