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.