Staying true to the original, this steamy stage adaptation is guaranteed to satisfy fans of the classic, feel-good film
I have high expectations of Dirty Dancing, the stage musical, having read several enthusiastic reviews of the tour so far: ‘a phenomenon’ and ‘surpasses all previous productions’. The show has just finished a five-night sell-out run in Dublin’s Bord Gais Theatre before its current appearance in the Millennium Forum. So I'm going along – as the saying goes - ‘prepared for delight, ready for disappointment’.
I'm not disappointed. Dirty Dancing at Derry’s Millennium Forum delights and thrills in equal measure and much more besides. If, like me, you can remember the disco dance age and you want to see some slick moves from the comfort of your seat, then this is the show for you. It’s all there: colourful and exuberant costumes, revolving stage-sets and imaginative backdrops, and some amazing special effects. Put that together with the familiar story of ‘boy (from the wrong side of the tracks) meets girl’, some raunchy chorus numbers, non-stop music and dancing, and we have the recipe for a good night’s entertainment.
In the original film, Dirty Dancing followed on from the heady, disco-crazy days of the mid-to-later 1980s, when John Travolta had been strutting his stuff on the dance floor for over a decade. But Dirty brought something new in its more sultry dance scenes, derived from the steamier forms of ballroom dancing, the salsa, the mamba and the cha-cha-cha, set to a medley of trusty 1960s hits, with a few original numbers added to the mix.
The show is set in a holiday resort in north-eastern USA in the summer of 1963, a few months before JFK’s assassination. Here two worlds meet, that of the well-to-do middle-class holiday guests and the resort’s working and working-class entertainers, who are warned beforehand that there is to be ‘no funny business’ with the guests.
But ‘funny business’ there inevitably is. We watch as 17-year old ‘Baby’ Houseman (Katie Hartland) falls for Johnny, the resort’s dance instructor. Baby is beguiling to watch, as she matures - in a matter of weeks - from hesitant novice to Johnny’s fully-fledged dance partner. Though Hartland is, at 23, six years older than Baby’ she doesn’t seem miscast. She manages to convey both the bland sweetness and coyness in the opening scenes of the ‘American high-school Girl’, and her later edgy emergence as a young woman with thoughts and feelings of her own.
In the lead male role, Karl James Wilson faces a tough challenge to follow Patrick Swayze, the Johnny Castle of the 1987 movie, the cool anti-hero who never seemed to smile. But he successfully creates his own version of the ‘cool dude’ from elements of Travolta and the Fonz.
Lewis’s dancing is technically superb, crisp and spot on cue. But he doesn’t quite have the charisma needed for the role. Not that this evening’s largely female audience seem to notice or care. They respond to every move he makes, cheering away as he ‘hams it up’ for their benefit.
Carlie Milner as Penny Johnson has it all: superb technique, amazing elasticity, riveting movement and that all-important stage presence. Her dance routines alone are worth going to see, and it’s a pity that most of her sequences are confined to the first act. She reappears towards the end of the show, reinvigorated as the dancer upon whom the show principally depends for its vitality and exuberance.
The darker sub-plot in this generally ‘feel-good’ romantic comedy involves an illegal abortion and its repercussions. But the pre- and post-abortion scenes are handled sensitively, as are the bedroom scenes between Baby and Johnny.
The main plot is of course the familiar conflict between parent and child, as Baby’s father, the well-to-do medical doctor, struggles to understand change in his daughter as she mixes with ‘those people up there’ (in the dancer’s rest-room), who don’t play golf and have nothing in common with his middle-class world. Johnny and those like him, in her father’s words, are precisely the sort of people ‘we have come so far to protect ourselves from’.
But ‘Good Girl meets Bad Boy’ is not done to death in this production. And we know in any case that Baby, albeit no longer the ‘baby’ of her nickname, is going to move on from her ‘summer of love’, back into her safe middle-class world.
The final brassy number, ‘(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life’ – now apparently the third most popular song at funerals in the UK - culminates the show with the entire cast on stage, dancing their way towards the end of the summer of ’63. In the final ‘lift’ scene when all eyes are upon Baby, Hartland does not disappoint, rounding off the finale with new-found elegance and ease. The entire Forum audience is suddenly on its feet, too, having waiting just over two hours for their chance to join enthusiastically in the show’s best known song.
The ‘Time of My Life’ duet between Elizabeth (Daniela Pobega) and Billy (Michael Kent) is for me the musical highlight, their strong voices blending together, yet soaring above the dancers, in belting out the show’s best known signature tune.
This is not West Side Story, with its glorious Bernstein score and the passion and tragedy of the Jets and the Sharks. But if you want to see some nifty and erotic dancing, and relive some golden oldies of the 1960s when hips were swivelling and pelvises swayed, then this is the show for you.
Dirty Dancing runs at the Millennium Forum, Derry~Londonderry until Saturday February 18. Tickets, priced £24.50 - £45.00, are now on sale via the Millennium Forum box office online at www.millenniumforum.co.uk or by calling 028 7126 4455.