Dirty Dancing review (Lyric Theatre, The Star, Sydney)

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I’ve never felt more redundant as a theatre critic than I did when an entire row of people jumped to their feet and gave a standing ovation to the infamous “lift” at the end of (I’ve Had) The Time of My Life in the final moments of what had been a decidedly underwhelming night at the theatre.
Dirty Dancing — The Classic Story On Stage (carefully not billed as a musical) started its life 10 years ago in Sydney, and has now been all over the world, mystifying critics and thrilling its fans at every turn. It opened on London’s West End in 2006 with the biggest advance ticket sales of any musical at that point — £6 million in the bank before anybody had even seen it — and went on to run for five years. It’s absolutely critic-proof. What does it even matter what I think of it?
This is a completely faithful rendering of the much-loved 1987 film. The story, by Eleanor Bergstein, remains as charming and romantic as it’s always been, but the storytelling hasn’t been adapted for the stage in any way. It’s a problem because the moments of intimacy remain exactly as they were in the film and are completely lost in a 2000-seat theatre. It’s also told in snippets, which a film editor can piece together into a fine narrative, but on stage feel completely scattershot.
Then there’s the problem of the music — I don’t think anybody has decided if this is a musical or not. It looks and sounds like a musical, and there are plenty of musical excerpts, but Eleanor Bergstein’s allegiance to her screenplay means that none of the leading characters are given a chance to sing — that’s left to those on the periphery. And then there are long scenes with pre-recorded music, which seems entirely unnecessary given there’s a band and singers on stage.
It’s disappointing that we never get to hear Baby (Kirby Burgess) or Johnny (Kurt Phelan) sing, because there are just so many moments crying out for a song. Instead, almost every scene is left hanging limp in the air. You mightn’t need a song to punctuate a particular scene on film, but when you don’t have close-up shots available there has to be something to translate that feeling to an audience.
Burgess is this production’s saving grace as a Baby so bright, hopeful and endearing it’s impossible not to lose yourself, at least for a moment. She’s not the most technically brilliant actress — her monologues feel a little undercooked — but there’s undeniable energy and charisma, and she’s an excellent dancer (and singer, although you never hear it).
Phelan works hard as Johnny, but the character simply doesn’t work on stage. The appeal of the character lies in the moments when you get to glimpse behind the many walls he’s built up. You can’t really catch a “glimpse” of anything in such a big venue, so those moments are played necessarily broad.
Nadia Coote is an excellent dancer, and does her best to bring pathos as Penny, but every moment is ripped away from her before it develops in any meaningful way. Mark Vincent is given a quiet moment to sing In The Still of the Night as Billy, and the audience loves it. But like everything in this production, it feels rather pointless.
James Powell’s direction finds a few creative solutions to moving the film to stage, but is as uninspired as Stephen Brimson Lewis’ basic set of white screens, which are covered in Jon Driscoll’s projections. If you didn’t already feel like you were watching the movie, the projections ought to convince you.
The choreography — by Kate Champion, Craig Wilson and Michele Lynch (and it draws heavily on Kenny Ortega’s work on the original film) — is mostly shapeless and consists of little more than Coote lifting one of her long legs up high above her head. It’s surprising when so many fine choreographers are involved. But the dancing is hamstrung by the style of storytelling, which is too fast-paced for more than snippets of dance, and the fact Baby is a beginner dancer for most of the story.
And yet the audience hoot and holler and scream when Johnny says “nobody puts Baby in a corner” and Baby says “I carried a watermelon”. People love it, and genuinely seem to be having the time of their lives (sorry). It’s rather confusing that the fans often laugh and squeal in the work’s most poignant moments — like they’re desperate to point out that they’re enjoying the show for the naff ’80s factor, not because they’re genuinely invested in the story. No amount of giggling can cover just how invested they really are.
I’m not giving this production a star rating, because I’m not even sure what standard I’m to judge it by. There are performances and an audience and a stage and curtains and applause, but I’m not sure this really qualifies as theatre. And I don’t mean that in any snobby critic “this isn’t art!” way. It’s just a photocopy of the film (with the civil rights movement crassly thrown into this decidedly white, middle class story to give it some “depth”), and a series of cues designed to trigger knowing, nostalgic reactions from the audience. It’s about as fun as getting a group of friends over, a bottle of wine and digging out the movie — whether that’s worth up to $150 a pop is up to you.
There’s nothing wrong with an enjoyable exercise in nostalgia — it draws people together with love — but that’s what has dominated our commercial musical theatre for the several years now. In difficult economic times, people want the comfort of unsurprising revivals of Grease, Rocky Horror, Annie and The King and I. Producer John Frost’s big “risky” venture over the last few years was An Officer and a Gentleman, which again attempted to rely on its audience’s familiarity with the source material to get across the line. While that particular show never caught on with audiences, the industry is doing perfectly well and people are employed thanks to that formula.
But hasn’t commercial musical theatre been looking backwards for long enough? Let’s set our aspirations a little higher and see what else we can do.
[box]Dirty Dancing is at the Lyric Theatre, Sydney until February 8, before moving to Melbourne, Brisbane and Perth. Featured image by Jeff Busby.[/box]

12 responses to “Dirty Dancing review (Lyric Theatre, The Star, Sydney)

  1. Ben, I couldn’t agree with you more. Johnny had no charisma, had the style of an insipid dancer who didn’t believe the part. Baby was quite good. After all, film can and does use take after take to get the production they want perfect. Penny, tried but again her partner lacked conviction in an undeniably strong part. Mark Vincent is a brilliant singer, but he got lost in the audience approval of Baby and Johnny. I believe, had they not stuck to something near the original script, it would not sell at all. The film, although cheesy today, still renders cause and affect. People loved the story and it did hold true to the times in some way.
    There are very talented, strong dancers in this country. Why choose a wimp and half endearing character for Johnny, I will never understand this.
    Disappointing, almost embarrassing, and not worth the money.
    A good stiff drink and a rerun of the movie may obliterate my memory.

    1. I absolutely agree with you Georgina, I traveled from Melbourne to Sydney with a friend eager to see our favorite movie on stage. The best part of the night were the cocktails at interval in the foyer. We had to drag ourselves back to the second half , watching and listening to Johnnys character was torture. To sum it up in 2 words…I d say it was “cringe worthy”

    2. Ben, you are a champion for telling it the way it is. I actually thought I was being too judgmental while sitting through the show sulking like a child because, I was so disappointed in ‘no personality Johnny’. and the fact that It just was not DIRTY dancing, and more like, tumbles and twirls. Baby was fabulous! But oh, those awful American accents. I could go on and on… I had to go home that night and watch the movie for the umpteenth time, to put everything back in its place. I feel better now.

  2. Terrible! Went to see dirty dancing tonight and it was less than anticipated. Baby was great, everything else was shocking. THERE WERE NO PROPS!! WTF low budget crap charging good money. Sorry to compare but strictly ballroom was quality, this was amateur

    1. Bree,
      You hit the nail on the head. Strictly Ballroom was great theatre, really engaging stuff.
      I went to ‘Dirty Dancing’ last night (18 Jan, 2015) and cringed from the get go. My tickets were premium priced compared to ‘Strictly Ballroom’ for a less than entertaining evening. It was very ‘ho hum’.

  3. I disagree with most of the comments above and I have seen a lot of live theatre/musical including Strictly Ballroom. This performance of Dirty Dancing is not as good as the original which was shown at the Theatre Royal (yes I saw that too) but the show was entertaining and the cast did their best to make it enjoyable. Baby, Penny and Johnny stand out in a very energetic, enjoyable show. When I think of poor theatre Dusty and Mamma Mia take the cake.

  4. It was terrible. The last thing I saw there was Priscilla, so entertaining! This was just so all over the place, trying to fit in every random detail, so dialogue was confusing unless you knew the script to the film off by heart.. the dancing was average quite frankly.. acting was SO bad. We left thinking we’d just paid 150$ to see a high school christmas musical…. That should never have been allowed on stage! And the ‘special effects’ backdrop when they were in the ‘lake’..oh my god…was that meant to be funny? everyone laughed because it looked SO RETARDED!

  5. Unfortunately we wasted a lot of money on this show last night. This was such a disappointingly average production of anything I’ve ever seen. I have never yawned so much at a show… Or lost concentration so many times. They flat out copycat the movie and then add a few random scenes and lines that only confuse an already restless audience. The red head singing was having an off night, she sounded truly awful at times. One daughter had seen movie and didn’t like it, the other daughter hadn’t seen the movie and walked out really confused with us promising she’ll be better off just watching the movie! Just enough of a mix of over acting in general, coupled with under acting the more important scenes to make me regret having spent a cent on it.

  6. I saw this on the 13th March. I thought the dancing and the music was fantastic, but that was it. Acting was very average and the props and lack of props were very poor and actually cringe worthy. I am a bit upset that I actually spent the high amount of money that I did on these tickets. On the 14th of March I saw the Lion King…..totally amazing in every way, that was money well spent and the tickets were cheaper than dirty dancing.

    1. Maybe it’s because this was my first ever musical, but I thought Dirty Dancing was brilliant.
      I was so reluctant to go with my my wife (I think the movie is the worst movie I have ever seen) but I really enjoyed it and it surprised me massively.
      I thought all involved did a great job and the tickets were money well spent.
      I could of walked straight back in and watched it again.
      8.5/10 I would give it

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