Stagecraft: Book: Performance:
Dirty Dancing takes us to 1963, to a holiday camp in the Catskill mountains; an American version of Butlins. Places where Jewish families, still facing discrimination in the U.S., could spend their summers, and many a young romance was forged. But the one developing between the lead couple in this story, well known from the classic 1987 movie of the same name, like in all good love stories, is fraught with problems. Frances ‘Baby’ Houseman (Katie Eccles) is a wilful and warm hearted teenage girl, determined to change the world. Visiting with her family, she falls for the in-house dance teacher, ‘bad boy’ Johnny Castle (Lewis Griffiths), to the chagrin of her beloved father Dr. Houseman (sympathetically played by Julian Harries). Directed by Federico Bellone, but with Eleanor Bergstein as both the writer of the screenplay and the stageplay, it retains the choppiness of a film, adds some new scenes but keeps the characters we know and love.
Roberto Comotti (set) and Valerio Tiberi (lighting) bring typical Italian flair to the production, creating the colourful brashness of the resort with rotating towers like the ultimate high-tech dollshouse. Daytime brings cheerful smiles, plaid summer two pieces and family fun, nighttime hidden struggles, power dynamics and troubled liasons amongst the staff. The classic, beloved scenes from the film were given their full due; self-knowing tricks that brought laughter from the audience, and augmented by rich greens and atmospheric multi-hued lighting suggesting the rich, fresh feeling of the mountains and lakes that form the perfect backdrop to Johnny and Baby’s inevitable attraction.
Most of the focus of the show goes on the storyline and the choreography (Gillian Bruce), with the usual big musical numbers giving way to a medley of familiar tunes from both the movie and of the time, augmented by the quality ‘resort’ band. Special mention must go to the two big voices of the night; Michael Kent as Billy Kostecki and Sophia MacKay as Elizabeth, both exuding surprising gravitas in their relatively minor roles. Carlie Milner is a perfect Penny, a visual ballet Barbie injecting star quality into her raunchy moves; real in her suffering, and hyper-focused in her mentoring of nervous new dancer Baby. The choreography was varied, from sensual to sensational, with the expected flashy group dance routines eventually delivered at the end of a lumbering second act. ‘Hungry Eyes’, in particular, kept us fixated on Baby, sandwiched between Johnny and Penny, unable to do anything but relinquish herself to their mesmerising dance expertise.
Baby and Johnny are such iconic characters, they must be hard boots for any actor to fill. Physically, they are satisfying to watch, down to Baby’s adolescent awkwardness and earnest walk, to Johnny’s chiseled chest drawing whoops and wolf whistles from the ladies in the audience at every possible opportunity. Griffiths does a great job, though his character is particularly rough and offhand with her in the beginning. Of course, Baby gives as good as she gets, and troubled Johnny’s tenderness and vulnerability begin to shine as he unburdens himself with her strong encouragement. Eccles has a vast range of emotions to express, and although at times holds herself back from throwing herself fully into the rawness of those emotions, does a competent job at holding such a massive role together.Their chemistry is just strong enough to be believable, and their dance scenes were fantastic, and although there’s playfulness and intensity between them, there was just a little touch of romance missing. Maybe it was the over reliance of taking their shirts off and on again; this simple flash of flesh just not being particularly sexy or imaginative.
The performances were a delight across the board, and although the entire production at times felt like it had a little too much flesh hanging on the bones, Dirty Dancing was a fun, fluffy affair, but with a classic story that has stood the test of time. The play is able to enhance the film and give us a wonderful treat with its full range of drama, comedy and romance. Through its careful and realistic character development, we stayed emotionally connected to the story right until the satisfaction of the long-anticipated ‘lift’.
Reviewer: Lisa Michel Williams