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DIRTY DANCING – Piccadilly Theatre, London.

dirty dancing west endYour reaction to the stage musical version of Dirty Dancing depends upon two key factors: the extent of your nostalgic affection for the classic 1987 film, and your early-evening pink Champagne intake level. Last night’s star-studded audience seemed thoroughly prepared on both counts, given the quantity of merry whoops and giggles, but it does highlight a problem for the creative team: do you aim for a serious West End dramatic show, or embrace that fact that this is essentially fandom bingo, with the majority of viewers itching to tick off “I carried a watermelon”, “Spaghetti arms!” and, of course, “Nobody puts Baby in a corner”?

On the whole, this revival production bows to the die-hard fans, hardly changing a word or step from the original movie. That does pose certain challenges, notably re-creating scenes in tricky locations – designer Stephen Brimson Lewis’s solution of projection screens is a solid (if filmic) shortcut, although the log and water training sequences are unintentionally farcical – and selling the cheesy dialogue, which is even more endearingly clunky when we’re racing through brief movie-style scenes. On the plus side, it gives the evening a frenetic energy, but it does mean the cast has to switch between heightened emotional beats at the speed of light, seldom given time to get their teeth into the drama.

Of course, all of this is forgivable if we’re thoroughly seduced by the central Romeo and Juliet love story, which speaks to the underappreciated teenager within. Jill Winternitz, making her West End début, has the right wide-eyed eagerness for Baby and a quirky comic flair, particularly in the convincingly awkward early attempts at dancing, but her rather flat delivery hampers her in the meatier scenes. Paul-Michael Jones as Johnny also struggles to pull off the earnestly hammy speeches, lacking Swayze’s ability to distract with natural swagger and smouldering sex appeal, but impresses with his crisp, dynamic movement, particularly in the all-important closing number. The pair find a decent chemistry, which will hopefully develop further over the run.

Another quirk of the show is that this is not a musical in the traditional sense, as the leads do not sing a note, rather a fantastic soundtrack upgraded from subtext to text; no one bursts into song when they reach a state of overwhelming emotion, but rather to cover scene changes or lend support to the action. Live renditions of songs like the Oscar-winning “(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life” do add great energy to the dance performances, but others steal attention away from the main storytelling – it’s Wayne Smith’s Billy who has the standout musical moments, and Emilia Williams as ghastly Lisa almost stops the show with her screamingly funny hula number.

dirty dancing west endIn place of song, dance is a major part of the main cast’s narrative language, and, when used judiciously, demonstrates why this art form is such a valuable tool for telling story quickly and effectively. The “Hungry Eyes” training montage uses dancing as metaphor for emotional growth, demonstrating Baby’s shift from awkward girl to confident woman as she works alongside that paragon of female sexuality, superb Charlotte Gooch’s lithe, long-legged Penny, and the “Cry to Me” bedroom dance delivers a key turning point without Johnny or Baby speaking a word.

However, there does need to be clear distinction between the different dance forms, from the staid old-fashioned public dancing and technically flashy performance numbers to the heartfelt, steamy private dancing, in order to underscore the show’s attempt at social commentary. Choreographer Kate Champion adds too many tricks and high kicks to Kenny Ortega’s work, blurring the boundaries and thus losing some of the class separation and brewing revolution that gives Dirty Dancing its darker edge. The so-called dirty dancing should be as much solace as seduction, the disenfranchised outsiders’ escape from a repressive world.

There are glancing topical references added to Eleanor Bergstein’s script, though sadly not enough time to explore them in any depth – you’ll find more effective skewering of this apparently idyllic world of leisure in The American Plan over at the St James Theatre (Read our review).  One addition that does pay off is the fleshing out of Baby’s parents, gifting her dad a backstory which explains his antipathy towards Johnny and giving strong James Coombes and Julia J. Nagle more to work with.

And yet all this drama is really just a two-hour warm-up for the main event, judging by the audience’s delirious reaction to Johnny’s entrance in the final scene; thankfully, the iconic dance is faithfully re-created and the lift a suitably thrilling climax. Is Dirty Dancing a thoroughly satisfying West End experience? Arguably not, given that its pared-down touring production is sparse in comparison to other jukebox stage hits, and its relatively exposed cast doesn’t have the true triple-threat heft of something like A Chorus Line (a chamber piece needs virtuoso musicians), but when it embraces its camp joyousness, this is the perfect feel-good summer experience.

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Reviewed 18/07/13/

By Marianka Swain
@mkmswain

13th July  2013 – 22nd Feb 2014 (Touring from March)
Piccadilly Theatre, London, W1.

 

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