Dirty Dancing



by Eleanor Bergstein and Jacobsen Entertainment

Professional production

I gather that over the past few weeks video store owners have been taken aback by the number of people asking for copies of the hugely popular 1987 film of Dirty Dancing as potential audiences for the current stage show sought to relive old memories or find out what all the fuss was about.
< BR> For those of you who don’t know, or don’t remember; the film’s story, set in 1963, concerns the social and sexual awakening of a young woman, nicknamed Baby, on holiday with her privileged family at an exclusive resort. Straying into the forbidden territory of the staff quarters, she witnesses the uninhibited and suggestive dancing with which the hired help fill their evenings. Attracted by the machismo of the lead dancer Johnny (Patrick Swayze in the film), she becomes involved in the troupe’s problems and volunteers to step into his incapacitated partner’s shoes for a performance that will save the dancers from being sacked by an uncaring management. Coached and bedded by the increasingly captivated Johnny, she is transformed; the crucial performance is a success and Baby learns to stand up to her family and defy society’s expectations. At the concert held to mark the end of the summer holiday Johnny makes an unexpected entrance and together he and Baby reprise their sizzling dance routine. Inspired by her example, all the guests in the resort let go of their inhibitions and enthusiastically shake their asses having the time of their lives in a rousing finale.

Devoted fans of the film will have booked their tickets long ago. Those heretics who, like me, found the film mind-numbingly dull, Patrick Swayze faintly repellent and the chorus’s insistent pelvic-thrusting and groping no substitute for real dancing (or sex) – might need a bit more persuading. Certainly, since 1987, audience expectations of this genre have risen enormously. Buz Luhrmann in Strictly Ballroom showed what can be done with similar material, and we have all become used to the unlikeliest candidates (think Pauline Hanson and Darryn Hinch) being glamorously made-over and drilled into managing passable dance routines every week in Dancing with the Stars. Screen performances, however, offer one kind of experience, live performance entirely another.

This adaptation of a film for the stage exemplifies the fact that there is nothing, absolutely nothing, that compares with the thrill of live theatre. From the moment the curtain rises on the clever set with its versatile platforms, sophisticated lighting and effective back-projections it is possible to ignore the banal storyline and enter uncritically the world of the musical. The director’s treatment of the rain sequences, the car trips and the rehearsal in the river remind us of the magic that only theatre can achieve, and the increasingly manic appearances of the entertainment director make real as nothing else could the horrors of the family resort. While staying very close to the original script, the stage conversion includes some new scenes which make the piece more suited to the theatre (I particularly liked the Pirate King’s song) and allows the cast more opportunities to display their versatility. And it is, indeed, a very talented cast.

Kym Valentine is engagingly gauche as Baby and she makes her gradual mastery of dancing both convincing and very funny. Her look of glazed terror which gradually changes to one of vast relief as she completes her first public performance is matched only by the growing delight she displays in her triumphant final dance with Johnny at the end of the show. As Johnny, a character that could all too easily appear sleazy, Josef Brown is as attractive and sensitive a piece of rough trade as one could ever ask for. A brilliant dancer, he consistently draws gasps from the audience with his technically demanding leaps and lifts. Not much is demanded of the minor characters, though Emma Langridge as Baby’s sister has a lot of fun with her dreadful talent show performance, and there are some strikingly good vocalists (Philip Darley, Ben Mingay and Christina Tan).

It is on the dancers, however, that a show such as this ultimately depends. Trained to make everything appear effortless, it is they who risk sprained ankles, twisted knees, torn ligaments and damaged backs every performance – and all with a smile on their faces. In the theatre it is their courage, energy and commitment that stirs the audience into a lively response and, if the performance I saw was typical, these dancers certainly succeed. In particular, Nadia Coote as Johnny’s professional partner is stunning, lighting up the stage whenever she appears.

Dirty Dancing in its latest manifestation will continue to attract fans if only because, like Dancing with the Stars , it taps into one of our deepest fantasies: that in the arms of the right partner we could all become gorgeously sexy movers. There may well be scores of men secretly convinced that, with a leggy blonde wrapped round them, they too could come across like Tom Williams. Women have always had a wider choice of fantasy partners (and Josef Brown looks set to join the stable). As for me, I’m with Princess Diana – John Travolta would do it every time.

Directed by Mark Wing-Davey

Playing until 5 March 2006: 7:30 pm, Saturday matinees 1:30 pm

Running time: 2hrs 45 minutes including interval

— Maureen Strugnell
(Performance seen: Fri 20th January 2006)