BWW Reviews: Grand Canal Theatre's DIRTY DANCING Will Make you Cheer, Cry and - Yes - Want to Dance
If the line: 'Nobody puts Baby in a corner' makes you want to cheer, cry, or just get up and dance, then 'Dirty Dancing - The Classic Story on Stage', now playing at Dublin's Grand Canal Theatre, is for you. Never have I heard such hoots and hollers from a musical theatre audience as when a spot-lit Johnny Castle strides through the aisles to collect his partner, Baby, for their final dance together. It is this atmosphere of nostalgia and gleeful anticipation that encapsulates the experience of the first UK/Irish tour of the 'Dirty Dancing' musical.
Based on the massively successful 1987 film of the same name starring Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey, 'Dirty Dancing' is the coming of age story of Frances 'Baby' Houseman (Emily Holt), who at 17 is still the apple of her father's eye and has dreams of changing the world. While on a family vacation at Kellerman's resort in 1963, she comes to idolize Johnny Castle (Paul-Michael Jones) and Penny Johnson (Charlotte Gooch), the working-class professional dancers who spend their summers giving cha-cha lessons the resort's well-heeled patrons. When Penny suffers complications from a botched abortion (paid for by Baby's unwitting father) Baby steps in as Johnny's new dance partner and sparks a romance that jeopardizes everything from Johnny's job to Baby's relationship with her father. Throw in a series of deliciously 'dirty' dance sequences and you've got the perfect movie plot.
Adapting it for the stage is where it gets tricky. While other movie-inspired shows (like, say, 'Legally Blonde') feature original scores and plenty of embellishments, 'Dirty Dancing' simply resurrects the film onstage with minimal changes, and the result is choppy. Though the film's legendary lines and choreography remain, the musical arrangements are often lacklustre; with movie favourites from 'Hungry Eyes' to 'I've Had the Time of My Life' crooned by chorus members in the background, rather than woven into the context of the plot. Meanwhile, the dance montages that characterize the film become tedious without the advantages of camera close-ups or the atmospheric outdoor settings where Baby and Johnny practice their moves. The play does its best to recreate the forests and lakes around Kellerman's resort with the help of a scrim and some splashy sound effects, but the audience's laughter at the awkwardness of these efforts comes at the expense of the sexual tension which marked similar scenes in the film. Somehow it works, if only because the conscious campiness of it plays to the whole experience.
The heart of 'Dirty Dancing' has always been the liberation, rebellion, and seduction its characters experience through dance, and thankfully this cast can really hoof it. The ensemble is made up of impressive dancer/singers who revolve (literally) around the leads on a rotating circle at centre stage. As the unfortunate Penny, Charlotte Gooch dazzles in several spicy Latin numbers, while Paul-Michael Jones (Johnny) partners equally well with both Gooch and Emily Holt (Baby), who displays the plucky awkwardness of a young Jennifer Grey. Unfortunately, the film's legacy gives the actors little leeway to explore these characters, as many lines are delivered with the exact cadence of their on-screen originators.
The motto of 'Dirty Dancing' the musical seems to be: why mess with a good thing? The popularity of the film over the last 25 years guarantees a winning formula for movie fans who get the inside jokes and aren't shy about vocalising their adoration. Be prepared for an audience of former 80s children that hold nothing back, particularly the scenes in which Johnny appears shirtless. Sure, it's a bit silly…but I dare you not to join in.
'Dirty Dancing' plays Dublin's Grand Canal Theatre from 17th January to 25th February 2012.