Review: Dirty Dancing

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Dirty Dancing on stage Cape TownImagine getting the opportunity to live your favourite movie. Imagine getting to share the thrill of each passionate moment with the characters… This stage production of Dirty Dancing does just this – includes the audience in the telling of this classic feel good love story.

In this on-stage version of the 1987 film, the viewer is present as the story unfolds – rather than viewing it retrospectively as a film, and the dancing is tangibly electrifying as real people perform the demanding manoeuvres. The production ably celebrates the film’s most iconic moments, relishing in the moments of discovery and change as Frances “Baby” Houseman, played by Bryony Whitfield, leaves her innocence behind and through dance discovers lust, love and passion for more than just a ‘good cause’.

While staying true to the film – requiring a daunting amount of scene changes – the stage version also takes the opportunity to set the story more firmly in its time: the summer of 1963. The transformation undergone by Baby is shown as a microcosm of the larger political world, where Martin Luther King is stirring up emotions, and students are amassing for ‘Freedom Rides’.

The central characters of Baby and Johnny Castle (played by Gareth Bailey) are crucially untouched, with intricate attention paid to such details as costume and hair.  But other characters are given more context than the film allows, particularly Baby’s mother Marjorie Houseman (the ever enchanting Kate Normington) and resort-heir-apparent Neil Kellerman who in the hands of Rhys Williams becomes a much more sympathetic character, if still hilariously misguided as to his own importance.

Significant moments from the film have been carefully choreographed but still present challenges.  Yes, there are moments of real corniness, but the general reaction of the audience on opening night was to greet these moments with cheers rather than jeers, the dance on the log and the lift in the water in particular being met with happy laughter from the audience as the characters acted behind a screen projection. The legendary lift – far more thrilling in real life – was met with shrieks of joy, mostly rippling down from the seats at the back where apparently a real party was taking place, as former strangers found themselves united in their shared love of the film.

While ably filling Jennifer Gray’s shoes, Whitfield makes Baby her own, endowing her with sweet shyness, clumsy innocence, excitement and passion.  In fact Whitfield succeeds far better than Gray in making us believe Baby is just 17.  Watching her as a stiff, uneasy dancer is a little like listening to Audrey Hepburn play a cockney in My Fair Lady: a tad over-exaggerated, but as in that film too, it is the depth of the transformation that is so remarkable. Whitfield’s smoothly graceful dancing in the finale is wonderfully demonstrative of the changes Baby has experienced, while her beaming smile reminds us that Baby is still the same young idealist underneath.

While no-one can hold a light to Patrick Swayze’s Johnny, Bailey’s manner and swaggering confidence as the “cool” Johnny Castle is well portrayed both in his acting and his flawlessly powerful dancing. His moments of tenderness ring with honesty and add depth to the showcase of sensual and dramatic dancing which makes up so many of the scenes of the production. Bailey’s muscular torso also helps to redeem him as a suitable Johnny.

Mila De Biaggi’s performance as Penny is outstanding, and it is Penny’s determination, pride and vulnerability which provide many of the production’s key emotional moments. Her dancing is a breathtaking combination of fire and seduction coupled with great technical skill: a powerful contrast to Baby’s sweet naïveté.

The supporting cast is strong and energetic with a dynamism that suggests a great bond between them all.  Some of them are also singers, bringing the well-loved soundtrack to life with the aid of a small but perfectly formed on-stage band that whisks in and out of view above the main action.

Anyone who has seen and loved the film – and who has not? – should see the stage version of Dirty Dancing.  It may make you laugh, it may make you cry, but for one evening you may just have the time of your life.

Brynde Fisher-Jeffes

Dirty Dancing runs at the Artscape Opera House 18 January to 3 March 2013.

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