I must admit, the preponderance of screen-to-stage productions that swiftly sweep their way across the stage at the New Vic these days does make me despair somewhat and crave for something new and original. Not that there’s anything wrong with most of the these productions, but it’s a bit like the fast food dilemma at service stations, isn’t it? When given the choice, do you go for the tried and trusted Maccy D’s or try the dodgy looking but trendy food van serving unfamiliar Asian concoctions and take a gamble with the raw fish?
Strangely though, my ears pricked up when I heard Dirty Dancing was next on the list of film-stage productions, even though I had never seen the film. To remedy this, and drown out the sound of the fence blowing over in the recent howling gales, I settled down on the sofa to see what I’d been missing all these years, armed with a large glass of wine and even larger bag of popcorn. Turns out, not a lot. Thank goodness for the sustenance. I found the plotline and performances weak and superficial, and the lead female character Baby uninspiring, despite earning Jennifer Grey a Golden Globe nomination for the role. I thought the story of the supporting actress, Penny, was much more interesting and her dancing much more exciting, potentially leading to a deeper exploration of the theme of class prejudice and snobbery which underlies. But, I know, the clue is in the title. It’s a film about music and dancing, and that’s what made the film so enduring and loved by audiences past and present. Well, a smoulderingly fit Patrick Swayze doesn’t go amiss either.
One of the most thrilling aspects of live stage productions is dance. It is something that, like opera, can’t be fully appreciated on the screen. The energy, passion and effort of vibrant choreography simply can’t make it through the TV LED barrier. Looking at the cast portfolio, it’s clear that director Federico Bellone has gone for beautiful, youthful energy in his dancers. I was curiously hopeful that they could overcome the slightly disappointing elements of the film and bring the story and characters to life.
So, the story first. The summer of 1963, and privileged ‘Baby’ Houseman and family are vacationing in an exclusive resort, which offers dance lessons as part of the entertainment. Baby inadvertently discovers that the covert nightly dance parties held in the staff quarters are much more exhilarating, however. She immediately finds herself part of their drama when Jonny’s dance partner, Penny, is ‘knocked up’ by arrogant rich boy Robbie, and desperately needs help in order to keep her job, career and reputation.
Acting in the opening scenes was unsurprisingly wooden, as it stuck doggedly to the film script. Dancing nonetheless was impressive, particularly by the female artists, with their contortive split movements. Legs and lithe, writhing bodies took over the stage. The rotating set changes attempted to keep pace, giving me the feeling that I was stuck in revolving hotel doors. The first act literally whizzed by in a series of short scenes. Special effects were used to awkwardly and pointlessly recreate poignant scenes from the film; dancing on the log in the rain in the forest, the lake scene and then the brief drive home. The audience were suppressing giggles at this point. But as Michael O’Reilly, playing the lead role of Jonny, removed another layer of clothing to reveal a rather splendid physique, the audience responded with more vocal and appreciative giggles, culminating in enthusiastic laughter and whoops at the steamy dance scene that concluded the first act.
The second act took more liberties with the original screenplay and took advantage of the elements of a stage production, as music and singing played a more prominent role. A surprisingly revealing ‘getting out of bed scene’ by Jonny was much appreciated by the largely female audience. The extended finale was indeed the best, demonstrating the skills, enthusiasm and performance capacity of the ensemble. So, going back to the fast food analogy that I started with, this production ended up being more than the regular meal deal; it was more of ‘a limited time only’ special. Film to stage productions are safe, relying on the nostalgia factor of the audience. They don’t need to – they can afford to be more audacious and take advantage of the unique talents theatre performers have to offer.
[Amanda Briggs, March 2019]
Dirty Dancing is playing at the New Victoria theatre, Woking, from Monday 18 March to Saturday 23 March