Seventeen years after the movie starring Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey became a breakout hit and spawned one of the top-selling soundtracks of all time, “Dirty Dancing” has been adapted into a stage show that will delight its devotees, with original screenwriter Eleonor Bergstein on hand to ensure the production is as faithful to its source as could be.
Like Ben Elton’s Queen Musical “We Will Rock You” and Abba tuner “Mamma Mia!,” Brit director Mark Wing-Davey relies heavily on video clips and a hydraulic stage centerpiece to augment the action and maintain the pace of the original movie.
To wit: When the Housemans sit down to an empty dinner table on their first night at Kellermans Catskills vacation lodge, their meal is beamed, magnified a hundredfold, onto screens above their heads. This is the start of a series of unrelenting projections and overuse of the hydraulic bridge, both of which detract from an otherwise delightful dose of well-honed nostalgia. However, the bridge is effective when used to re-create Baby’s famous dance-practice scene.
Because the screens at the back and top of the stage have replaced traditional sets, the production has a cheap look that detracts from its many other excellent elements.
The pacing is fast; the dialogue, especially in the first half, is minimal; and the direction is even. Show’s cast is impeccable.
“Neighbours” alum Kym Valentine and ex-Australian Ballet lead dancer Josef Brown are worthy successors to Grey and Swayze. Brown’s voice could have been stronger and Valentine’s dancing is a bit stiff. But then she’s playing Baby, a non-pro, so the stiffness is forgivable, possibly even intentional.
The leads look every inch the budding lovers as they switch, with rhythm and grace, from simmering passion to unbridled joy and back again. Brown, who resembles a rugged Hugh Jackman, is a revelation.
Show’s sexiness peaks when the duo is joined by Nadia Coote (in the Cynthia Rhodes role from the movie) in a three-way dance to “Hungry Eyes.” Coote, in her first principal role, is a fantastic find and despite the leggy blond’s triple-threat attributes, she fits into the third-wheel role just fine.
Kate Champion’s choreography is another highlight. During “Love Man,” when Johnny gives Baby her first dance lesson, the ensemble on the dance floor surrounding the duo falls beautifully into sync, despite the glitch of one couple placing themselves in front of the leads. In her first large-scale commercial job, modern dance aficionado Champion proves she has much to offer the commercial sphere.
Jacobsen Entertainment, when it initially signed to produce this tuner, had planned to call it “Time of My Life,” because Lions Gate Films owned the movie title. However, Lions Gate allowed the use of the original moniker, which should boost this venture in terms of brand recognition. (It didn’t, however, help the commercially ill-fated movie sequel, “Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights.”)
The stage show features 51 songs, including Oscar-winning signature hit “(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life,” most of them played on tape; the only live orchestration comes from the Kellermans band.
Despite the years that have elapsed, the story underpinning “Dirty Dancing” holds up well. In fact, owing to the current dance revival in Oz and a debate on abortion (a key plot point) raging in federal parliament, the story is oddly contemporary despite being set in the 1950s. The movie’s legit reinvention should have a long life in Australia and abroad.