Review: Dirty Dancing, Aldwych Theatre, Saturday 6 November 2010

As a member of the female sex, it is almost blasphemy to not like Dirty Dancing, a singing-into-your-hairbrush chick flick classic. So I will go ahead and begin this review by predictably admitting that I am a fan of the film. I own it on DVD and have watched it more times than I can remember, though I have not – thankfully – attempted to do the famous lift while intoxicated (though I am sure there are many others who have!). I approached the stage version, however, without great expectations.

It would not have been my first choice of musical to see and I have to admit that had it not been a group trip I probably would never have got around to seeing this show and would not particularly regret it. Yet, as a fluffy, fun, girly outing to the theatre, this show, much like its big screen parent, delivers without fail.

Stephen Brimson Lewis has done wonders with the set design, finding pleasing and ingenious solutions to the staging difficulties presented by the film. The stage smoothly revolves, rises and falls to create new settings, while a screen behind the actors suggests the changing locations. The scene changes are seamlessly handled, although the scenes themselves are sometimes fleetingly short, a reminder of the show’s cinematic origins that does not work as well on stage as on screen. Overall, however, the film is slickly recreated on stage.

Recreated seems an apt word, as this is almost a carbon copy of the 1987 movie. The scenes are the same, the central dances are the same; Hannah Vassallo as Baby even sports Jennifer Grey’s slightly frizzy hairdo. I could have mouthed along almost word for word with the dialogue. I am also slightly dubious of its claim to be a musical, as it might better be described as a play with a few songs, most of which function as background music rather than being central to the scenes.

The cast, with Vassallo and Johnny Wright as the leads, do well, but it is the dancing that is the real star of the show. More dances have been added for the stage and Kate Champion’s choreography crackles and fizzes across the floor. It is when Johnny dances with partner Penny, played by Nadia Coote, that the moves really come alive, with some truly breathtaking steps and lifts. Quite rightly, the dancing steals most of the scenes.

Unfortunately, I feel that the creative team have missed an opportunity to do something special with this in the transition from screen to stage. With the addition of new songs and some true musical numbers incorporating both singing and dancing this could have gone from an enjoyable copy of the film to a stage show in its own right. In comparison with what has been done with Priscilla Queen of the Desert, for example, Dirty Dancing falls a little flat. What it lacks is that something extra that makes the theatre experience a world apart from the movie.

That said, by the finale you no longer care. As everyone cheers at the iconic words ‘nobody puts Baby in a corner’ and we see that eagerly anticipated lift, you will leave the theatre on a natural high. For those looking to save some money I might suggest that you sit at home with the DVD, but watching it on a television screen will never give you the atmosphere of the auditorium, which is what you really pay for. It might not be the time of your life, but it is a very enjoyable night out.

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