Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Dirty Dancing @ Phoenix Theatre, London

6 – 31 December 2016

Dirty Dancing

Dirty Dancing (Photo: Alastair Muir)

Dirty Dancing is a film with which everyone, irrespective of their current age, seemed to grow up! If you weren’t a teenager when it came out in 1987 you had a child who was, and if you weren’t even born then you were probably introduced to it by parents who continued to watch the DVD.

This musical version of the piece very much identifies with the film and its fans, as it closely follows the plot and structure of the movie. There are naturally some differences and it stands to reason that a film about dancing should have some success in transferring to the stage where that art form can so proudly be put on display. In the film the initial presentation of ‘dirty dancing’ is rendered through close up shots of bodies sidling up to each other. Here it is demonstrated through a full-blown routine featuring dancing that, while still sexy, is also expressive and aesthetically pleasing. In other ways, filmic qualities are maintained in the attention to detail that is shown. For example, the moment in which the dance instructor Penny tells every girl to grab the man of her dreams is followed by Baby just missing out on catching the ‘hunk’ and finding herself dancing with the older Mr Schumacher instead.

The dancing is of a high standard, with Lewis Griffiths as Johnny ably filling the large shoes left by Patrick Swayze by proving an immensely accomplished dancer and a strong stage presence. Carlie Milner also proves an exceptional talent as Penny with her long fluid movements, while Katie Hartland excels as Baby, achieving the right balance between displaying naivety and determination as she reveals her own skills as a dancer. Some parts of the show do feel hammed so that the rich kid Neil’s dancing is bad to an extent that would never feel believable on film, but others draw on the charm of the movie to create parallel scenes that thrill by virtue of their familiarity. For example, the scenes on the log above the stream and in the water draw laughter from audience members as they see the images they know so well given a self-conscious and slightly ironic twist. The six-piece band, ably led by musical director Richard John, is also strong. Although it is only onstage for a minority of the time, this is still enough to ensure that it is an integral part of the story and experience, and not merely an ‘accompaniment’ to the songs and drama.

The dance at the Sheldrake is rendered especially convincingly because it does not look so polished as to seem unbelievable, and yet still avoids seeming amateurish to such an extent that no-one could ever believe the pair would get away with such a performance. Particularly impressive is the way in which Griffiths, while still displaying his considerable dancing talents, makes Johnny really look like someone who is more focused on ensuring that Baby gets through the routine than in showing off himself.

In other ways, however, the general adherence to the film is a disadvantage. The odd character or plot point might be a little more developed, but, as a rule, all of the short sixty second scenes are included. This has the double disadvantage of replicating a structure that works for film in a medium to which it is less suited, while bringing little new to an alternative experience that demands some originality. As a result, there may be a minority of Dirty Dancing fans who emerge disappointed because the musical, in building so little on the film, simply feels to them like a poor imitation of the piece they love so much, no matter how strong the cast may be. Judging from the reaction of the audience, however, the majority of fans will be satisfied. Whoops and cheers accompany the most iconic of lines, routines and poses, suggesting that for most people the familiarity of what is seen is all part of the delight.

Following its run at the Phoenix Theatre, Dirty Dancing will tour around the United Kingdom and Ireland until 23 September 2017. For details of all dates and venues visit the Dirty Dancing on Tour website.

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Dirty Dancing @ Phoenix Theatre, London