BWW Reviews: DIRTY DANCING Not Quite the Time of Your Life

Gareth Bailey as Johnny and
Bryony Whitfield as Baby in DIRTY DANCING

The commercial success of DIRTY DANCING on stage is a testament to the enduring popularity of the 1987 coming-of-age drama that inspired it. Having played to sold out houses in Australia, Germany, the UK and the USA, the show opened in South Africa last year for a run in Johannesburg before transferring to Cape Town for a two-month run through March 2013.

Most people probably have some inkling of the plot of DIRTY DANCING, which tells the story of Frances "Baby" Houseman's life-changing summer vacation at Kellerman's, a holiday resort in the Catskill Mountains. Baby (Bryony Whitfield) starts off her summer as an idealistic daddy's girl, but soon finds her beliefs challenged and complicated when she gets involved with Johnny Castle and his crew, who are all part of the entertainment staff at Kellerman's. Johnny (Gareth Bailey) and his ex, Penny (Mila De Biaggi), head up the dance staff at the resort and things start looking pretty bad for them when Penny finds out she is pregnant by one of the waiters, Robbie (Richard S Gau). Penny needs money to arrange for an abortion - an illegal procedure in 1963, when the show is set - and Baby manages to get the money from her father (Mark Rayment) without him knowing what it will used for. To allow Penny the time to have her abortion, Baby agrees to step in as Johnny's partner for a performance at a nearby hotel where the pair moonlight every Thursday night. That sets the ball rolling: Baby's dance lessons lead to something of a sexual awakening for her, something goes wrong during Penny's abortion and Baby's father, a doctor is called in to save the day. As the first act curtain falls, the audience is left to wonder how things will all work out - but there are no prizes for guessing what will happen in Act II.

The biggest problems with the show lie in its adaptation and in the direction. In adapting her own film for the stage, Eleanor Bergstein set herself the challenge of transforming her material into a live theatre experience without, as Bergstein writes in her programme notes, simply slapping the movie onstage. A noble goal, but the whole thing still feels like a movie on stage, at least in its structure if not in the performance itself. The scenes are short and voluminous, never really giving the characters time to breathe and develop as they should in a stage production of this kind, and it seems like most of Bergstein's efforts were channelled into padding out a moderately charming, if clichéd, 96-minute film with 'more than 20 new scenes and 25 new songs' into two hours of frenetic and unfocused storytelling.

Mila De Biaggi and Gareth Bailey in DIRTY DANCING

The first act is particularly choppy, with the script trying to flesh out some of the themes and characters from the film. Greater emphasis is placed on the political context against which the narrative plays out, which means the audience is fed more overt references to Martin Luther King and a couple of choruses of "This Land is Your Land" and "We Shall Overcome", but these additions are cosmetic and pander to self-righteous middle class sensibilities around social transformation. There is more about Neil Kellerman, the boy with whom Baby's parents would rather see her paired, but instead of building up the character into one that could inject some genuine conflict into the story, Neil is revealed to be even shallower and more cowardly than the same character in the film. The only additions that actually work are those scenes that beef up the characters of Baby's parents, Dr Jake Houseman and his wife, Marjorie, who are given a relationship that develops in response to what is happening around them and to the history that the two characters share. Dramaturgically speaking, these scenes are more organic and truthful than anything else that is going on in the show. That they are so memorably performed by Mark Rayment and Kate Normington helps things along too.

The direction by Sarah Tipple, who worked on the West End and UK tour productions of the show, seems to follow two core principles: play it broadly and play it fast. This leaves some of the cast at sea, especially those who are better dancers than actors. De Biaggi, for example, who arguably has the most complex character in the show, delivers a dance performance that is astounding. However, her delivery of Penny's dialogue, while sincere to a fault, never really captures the subtleties of the character. Similarly, Bailey has all the right moves, but he never gets to grips Johnny's restless frustration and the spirit that lies at the heart of the character.

As Baby, Whitfield fares best, delivering a completely convincing performance and you get the feeling that she could do just about anything. Her performance is so good that she even overcomes the way that the character has been reconceived - whether on the page or for the stage, I am unsure - to be more klutzy than repressed than Baby is initially in the film, which somewhat misses the point.

Bryony Whitfield and Gareth Bailey in DIRTY DANCING

Other performers that stand out in the show are Rhys Williams as Neil, thanks to the personality he injects into what is essentially a caricature and Kyle Grant as the lovelorn Billy, one of the few named characters who sings and who delivers a heartfelt version of "In the Still of the Night" in the second act.

The strongest aspect of the show is the music, much of which is performed live by an onstage band under the supervision of Charl-Johan Lingenfelder, and by a group of singers who weave in and out of the action providing a soundtrack that accompanies the action on stage. Although the show is not strictly speaking a musical - there are moments when Baby spends so much time emoting up at the balcony that it is a pity she never starts singing - the music is an integral part of this show and Lingenfelder and his team are to be congratulated on a sterling job.

Another facet in which the show succeeds without a doubt is in its stagecraft. The design of the set, video projections, lighting and sound make for a spectacular experience, with each element perfectly complementing the other in the hands of the original designers and the technical crew who actually make things happen on stage at the Artscape every night.

In the programme notes, Bergstein writes convincingly that in bringing DIRTY DANCING to the stage, she 'didn't want to take advantage of the movie's open-hearted audiences.' Looking at the way this film has been adapted and the response it has received from audiences around the world, I think that Bergstein underestimated their generosity. Those same women who, as girls, imagined themselves dancing with Johnny Castle - or perhaps that should be Patrick Swayze, who brought the character to life on screen in an iconic performance - are the target market for this adaptation of the film on stage. For them, there is probably enough by way of nostalgia to make for a pleasant evening at the theatre. After all, when you can scream your lungs out when Johnny proclaims that 'nobody puts Baby in a corner,' what else could you possibly need?

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From This Author David Fick