Dirty Dancing the stage show is at The Playhouse Theatre Edinburgh this week and taking us all back in music and style to 1963 (well a very rose tinted view of the times anyhow), and the busy hotel resorts of the Catskill Mountains where many New York families spent their summer vacations.
The show is of course based on the huge 1987 hit film Dirty Dancing starring Jennifer Grey as Frances "Baby" Houseman and Patrick Swayze as Johnny Castle. Here our title roles are played by Katie Eccles as Frances and Lewis Griffiths as Johnny. I am ignoring here the 2017 USA television film as I have not seen this one, so this show will always be (maybe a bit unfairly) compared to the original film, and that itself can usually be a problem as hit films very rarely transfer well to the different format of a stage show. I was by this default a bit apprehensive of what this production would be like as, although the stage show was originally performed in 2004, I had not yet seen it live. Well, I am pleased to say that Dirty Dancing The Stage Show is one of those rare exceptions to the rule and although obviously different from the film, retains the essence of the original and captures all of the iconic scenes, while adding much of its own charm along the way.
For anyone (like myself) who likes the music from this period, there are some great songs here –“Maybe” (The Chantels) – always sounding like a close version of “Unchained Melody” to me, “Be My Baby” (The Ronettes), “Wipe Out “(The Surfaris), “Duke of Earl” (Gene Chandler) and “You Don’t Own Me” (Lesley Gore) to name but a few. The choreography for the show does a great job here in fitting into the style of the period, and the look of the period is for the most part well captured in costume and set design. The downside always of course of a 1960s period piece like this though is how to engage with a young audience who probably will not know many of the songs or much of the music. Part of the answer to that is in the original film’s solution to add contemporary music too, and "(I've Had) The Time of My Life" by Bill Medley and Jennifer Warnes has become an iconic (and recognisable by a younger audience) song over the years (as have some of the other “new” songs).
Despite the music, the visuals and the dancing, “Dirty Dancing” will as a stage show work or not work depending on our two main lead characters, and here we have two very good leading role performers. Katie Eccles as Frances “Baby” Houseman is fun to watch as she develops from the protected “Baby” of the Houseman family into an independent free person and spirit who along the way swiftly develops a talent for latin rhythms and dance, but the star role of the show undoubtedly goes to Lewis Griffiths as Johnny Castle. As well as being armed with some serious dance moves, Lewis gets the character right here. Johnny Castle does not have to be arrogant or to swagger – like Casanova, he knows that he is the flame and not the moth. There is also a vulnerable side to this character that Lewis plays very well –Johnny Castle knows that he was born on the poor side of life’s railroad tracks and that many doors are closed to him in his world, and he also knows that he is the one being used by the many women at the resort who fall for his charms. This is a nice twist of the usual “sex object” angle.
Good supporting roles here too from Carlie Milner (Penny Johnson) who is a great dance partner to Johnny, Julian Harries (Jake Houseman), Simone Craddock (Marjorie Houseman) and Lizzie Ottley (Lisa Houseman). Michael Kent as Billy Kostecki puts in some nice work on some numbers here too, but oddly enough, the obvious talents of Jo Servi and Sophia Mackay seem a little under-used here.
Like all good stories, there are several levels to this one, and one of the biggest secondary stories is the development of the USA Black Civil Rights Movement and the part that some of our characters want to play in this. This story line is always going to be a hit or a miss outside of the USA as some of the references (and speeches) by Martin Luther King Jnr may be obvious, but others are maybe less obvious to non-Americans. There is too a bit of a sugar coated view to these times as seen through the idealistic ideals of privileged white youths, but there is a short jolt back to reality by a few lines given to Jo Servi as Tito Suarez.
Stage wise, this production has a very good set, and the use of revolving set pieces works really well here and makes excellent use of the limited space that a theatre stage can provide (even one as big as The Playhouse Theatre’s). There are a lot of scene changes here, and every one of them is done with speed and slickness. Some innovative use of lighting and projections also help to capture some classic scenes well – including the dancing in the water scene. Of course the now iconic line of "Nobody puts Baby in a corner” is here too.
This show has some obvious sexual references and scenes, but they are very tastefully dealt with and avoid being exploitative. The opening few moments do carry some very suggestive sexual jokes in the dialogue, and given the age of some of the audience members (12+ is the recommended age), that did concern me a bit, but thankfully, we swiftly left those references and moved on. A very small re-write could remove or change these with no loss whatsoever to the feel of the story. In the end though, the character of Johnny Castle is a very sexual one and his moves on and off the dance floor are never far from the story line, and Lewis Griffiths manages to tread that razor wire of making his character very sexual but certainly not crude…a difficult thing to do.
Dirty Dancing was for me a real surprise…simply a great show full of music, fun, dance and energy. A pleasant trip back to the nostalgic music of the 1960s and 1980s (how did the latter happen). This story is though viewed from a later moral and social perspective that would in some cases have been very out of character in 1963.
Review by Tom King