Before I begin this review I have a shameful confession to make; I have never seen the film Dirty Dancing. Before seeing the stage musical, I knew enough to get by whenever vague references came up as they are want to do in popular culture, but I’d never seen the whole thing through, and that was my first mistake.
For those as ignorant as myself, Dirty Dancing follows the Houseman family holiday to the Kellerman resort, and the three weeks they spend their, as their daughter ‘Baby’ (Jill Winternitz) becomes wrapped up in the lives of the staff. This production is heavily based on the film, and very faithful in its rendition of the cult classic, stretching the staging and tech to meet its needs.
The technical aspects were phenomenal and the lighting designer, Tim Mitchell, deserves much praise for the use of gauze and projections, which were both atmospheric and managed to place the action in the great outdoors, including a lake and wheat field. The laser lights were fun and nicely involved the audience. The set designer Stephen Brimson Lewis’ use of giant lattice work to give the air of an outdoor institute and the cabins was also well done, moving up and down to reveal and conceal, as well as to rearrange the stage space and give the impression of multiple locations.
When it came to staging, writer Eleanor Bergsten said she wanted to give the audience the feel of live dancing, to bring them closer to the action than ever before, and it was certainly impressive. Both the guests and the staff dance the holiday away, often to comic effect. The choreography was well done, and the revolving drum used well to show it off to the best of its ability. Fans of the film will be pleased to know the iconic dance at the end remains intact, and sent the audience into raptures of delight.
However I found there was little character development; the roles seemed to be two dimensional portrayals at best or bizarre stereotypes that appeared to be confused in their purpose. They were merely dolls used to tell the story, and even as they made us laugh or sympathise with their dilemmas, they were almost impossible to connect to. However this was not the fault of the actors, who made the most of what they were given and portrayed them well.
The fault, I fear, lies with the adaptation itself, which is too slavish to the film to make this a great theatre production in its own right. By being so faithful to the film, the production has been reduced to a series of iconic moments stuck together. All greater meaning and resonance comes only if it is coupled with the film, but fall short if taken on its own. Overall, the breadth of ambition in this production is impressive, and fans of the film will love seeing it brought to life on stage, but as a play in its own right it lacks the depth needed to work or stand up on its own.
Images by Alastair Muir