Dirty Dancing

Eleanor Bergstein
Karl Sydow and Joye Entertainment with Lionsgate and Magic Hour Productions
Palace Theatre, Manchester

Jill Winternitz Credit: Alistair Muir
Jill Winternitz, Paul Michael Jones Credit: Alistair Muir
Jill Winternitz, Paul Michael Jones Credit: Alistair Muir

It’s the summer of 1963—the summer ‘before the Beatles came and President Kennedy got shot’.

Dr Jake Houseman takes his wife and two teenage daughters to the Catskill Mountains in upstate New York, to a hotel complex owned by one of his patients, Max Kellerman. During their stay, Dr Houseman’s youngest daughter, Frances (known to all as ‘Baby’) falls for the “forbidden fruit” of a rugged professional dancer called Johnny Castle, causing conflict with her beloved father. She learns some harsh truths about life, but emerges more mature and happier, having found love and regained her parents’ favour.

Based on the low-budget yet massive hit 1987 film of the same name, this stage version of Dirty Dancing makes a determined and largely successful attempt to stay true to the original. The sense of time and place is imaginatively achieved using projections and skilled lighting effects. Three-dimensional aspects of the set are minimal but effective (tables and chairs carried on and off by waiters, doors and screens sliding down stage to represent the guests chalets and the more basic staff accommodation).

On one level, Eleanor Bergstein’s story is a straightforward coming-of-age tale—a pretty duckling takes (briefly) to the water and learns how to fly. But the story of how ‘Baby’ grows into ‘Frances’ is also a cleverly constructed nostalgia piece with something to say about what happens when working class realities come up against middle class liberal sensibilities.

But why is he blathering about all this? I hear you say, Why doesn’t he just tell us about the music and, more importantly, the dancing? Have it your own way.

The music features a blend of period classic and original songs. Some of these reach our ears pre-recorded, while others are played live by the excellent band, with vocals by the very capable Rosa O’Reilly and Wayne Smith. Smith’s fabulous rendition of “In the Still of the Night” (originally a 1956 hit for Fred Parris and the Satins—as if you didn’t know) is the vocal high spot of the show.

The dancing, throughout, is excellent and occasionally breathtaking, as when Paul-Michael Jones’s Johnny partners Nicky Griffiths’s Penny in some blistering mambo moves. Griffiths’s high kicks must make the male minority in the audience grateful to have booked their seats. Kate Champion's choreography makes bold use of an often crowded stage.

The supporting cast, be it acting, singing or dancing, do a sterling job—Emilia Williams (as Lisa Houseman) and Stefan Menaul (Neil Kellerman) play the comedy large and it works for them. For the principles, JIll Winternitz brings more charm and depth to the role of Baby than Jennifer Grey’s original; Paul-Michael Jones dances with panache but perhaps lacks the charisma needed for a leading man (mind you, I never got the appeal of Patrick Swayze either, so what do I know?)

The character of Baby strikes a lasting chord because her journey is more complex and believable than say, Sandy’s in Grease. While Sandy leaps from prim-and-proper to vamp overnight, Baby’s transformation, from bashful, idealistic ingenue to principled young woman, doesn’t involve her suddenly acquiring the hip swivel to make the boys drool (that Penny and the other professionals can do in their sleep). She’s the decent gawky girl who grows into the decent young woman who can dance a bit, and the audience love it that her reward is to win her father’s respect and to walk off with the hottest guy around.

Dirty Dancing, from an audience perspective, is built on iconic moments, and homage is duly paid to these. The scene where Johnny and Baby practice the lift in the lake is wittily presented with the use of front projection (though it requires a little bit of knowing complicity from the audience to make it work).

At the climax of the show, the returning Johnny, striding through the auditorium, declares that ‘Nobody puts Baby in a corner’. As the Oscar-winning signature tune crescendos, he deftly sweeps a confident Frances into the triumphant lift, sending the audience into shades of ecstasy. Standing ovations and not a little cheering greet the curtain calls.

Looking around at the finale, it appears that some members of the audience might indeed have had the time of their lives.

Reviewer: Martin Thomasson

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