This was so much better than I expected to be. The reason? It knew exactly what people expected it be, took that on board and didn’t take itself seriously. Fun and toe-curlingly cringey (in all the right places).
Originally posted on The AU Review.
There is often a great risk in taking a well-loved piece of media and attempting to translate it into some other form. It is difficult to find that balance between what was loved of the original, and what needs to be recreated for the new.
Dirty Dancing is exactly as its tagline declares- “The Classic Story On Stage”– managing to successfully transform itself from its film-form to the stage in a thoroughly entertaining and thoroughly enjoyable production. Its success is not in trying too hard to be a film on stage, but rather the story in stage, standing on its own right as a piece of musical theatre.
The production made its world premiere in Sydney in 2004 and has since gone on to entertain audiences all over the world. Its return to Sydney’s Lyric Theatre marks its 10th Anniversary, and this new vibrant cast brings a whole new freshness to the production. Starring Kurt Phelan as the swaggy and swoon-worthy Johnny Castle and Kirby Burgess as the delightful “Baby” Houseman, this well-loved story brings 1963 and Kellerman’s resort to life on stage.
The story, as I’m sure everyone knows, follows Johnny and Baby- two fiercely independent characters from very different worlds, who come together one summer and have “the time of their lives”! Picturesque Kellerman’s is brought to life on stage through clear screen projections and many screens.
The interesting point of difference in this musical is that there is a clear separation of actors, dancers and singers. In traditional musical theatre the cast would generally manage all three, but in Dirty Dancing there are on-stage singing cast members, dance teams and a live orchestra, which leaves the two leads to focus solely on their acting and dancing. The focus here is on the story, with the music acting as a sort of live soundtrack. This also means that songs are not forced into the original storyline, which works really nicely, and there are all your favourites from the film. Here’s “Hungry Eyes”, and “Hey! Baby”, and “Do You Love Me?” and of course, the iconic “(I’ve Had) The Time Of My Life”!
We are introduced to sweet “Baby” first, who is brought to life on stage perfectly by Kirby Burgessand it’s almost as though it is a role made for her. Baby is righteous and strong minded, but also has a gentle and caring side. In the eyes of her devoted father she’s going to “change the world”. During her stay at Kellerman’s, and through her introduction to Johnny, she evolves from an awkward stiff dancer into a unhibited stage-grabber in a matter of days, and Burgess captures this with such ease. We giggle along at her believable awkwardness during her first dance practices, and cheer as she improves.
From the first appearance of Johnny Castle you know that Kurt Phelan has the audience in the palm of his hand. This I gathered from the high-pitched squealing and delighted cheers as he swaggers out onto stage in his all black ensemble and dark sunglasses. Phelan is an incredible dancer- you really can’t turn your eyes away from those hips when he’s on stage. He manages to capture a Swayze-like smoulder, swoony accent and manly stroll as he prowls around the stage. His transformation through spending time with Baby is evident, as is his inner kind soul in his caring behavior towards Penny.
Penny herself is a definitely standout- and not only for those incredible legs! The ease at which Nadia Coote dances around stage, performing the most exacting moves with ease and athleticism really leaves you in awe. This extends to all the dancing ensemble- with lifts and swings happening all over the stage it’s really a delight to behold.
Another standout performance from the cast comes from classical artist Mark Vincent, in his first musical theatre experience. You can tell his classical singing background though, and during one particular solo song the audience just stops and stares open mouthed and in awe of that beautiful voice. Its really one of those breathtaking moments.
This is one production where you are able to really build a connection to the characters, and through this you are able to see as they grow and develop. There are many different types of relationships explored- between parents and children, between siblings, between friends, and between lovers. All of the cast do a really admirable job at bringing their characters to life, and making you feel empathy with them.
The costumes are equally incredible- think midriffs and puffy skirts, lots of bright colours and patterns. Of course, apart from Mr Johnny Castle- who swags right on stage in his trademark blacks with sunglasses. The number of costume changes is really something impressive- I’d love to see the backstage wardrobe! Even Johnny gets out of his blacks occassionally to don a number of perfectly cut suits and well placed belts. Also, on one occasion, just some underwear.
There is definitely a focus on the dancing here, but you don’t feel as though the dancing is taking over from the storyline. Everything is very nicely balanced. The onstage singer Eric Rasmassen drops in and out of the scenes very naturally, our accompanying soundtrack man. There are also a number of clever techniques that build out the story- such as managing to capture a feeling of a dancing montage, a technique familiar to film but a bit new to the stage! Another noticeable element about the production is that there are moments when it doesn’t take itself too seriously- there is a nice amount of tongue-in-cheek fun that lets them get away with some of the more clichéd scenes.
Eventually we build up to the big finale, and you won’t be disappointed. There’s all the corners, all the dancing and all the lifting you could want! And perhaps even more impressive for seeing it live on a stage.
This is definitely one that you won’t want to miss- it’s a really enjoyable production that is sure to delight you and remind you of the much beloved story. Book your seats! You can leave your watermelon at home though.