lift pic 

Dirty Dancing

Wolverhampton Grand

***

SO did we have the time of our lives? Not really. It was an entertaining evening and a watchable production but never quite lived up to the billing of its ancestor, the iconic 1987 film.

The low budget ($6m) musical romance with Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey became a huge hit and was the first film to sell a million copies on video, as well as spawning mega selling albums, so this new production had a lot to live up to.

People, rightly, expect to see the story they loved in the film retold faithfully on stage, but cinema and theatre are different beasts and what works on screen doesn’t always translate well beyond the footlights.

Roberto Comotti's design is quite masterful with three rotating structures which provide first, in the centre, the main block at Kellerman’s mountain resort in the Catskills, providing both the ballroom inside and, rotated the outside façade; then there are the staff quarters and their bedrooms rotatingat one side of the stage with the Houseman cabin, and bedrooms rotating on the other – all beautifully lit by Valerio Tiberi incidentally.

Scene changes are seamless and rapid, taking only as long as the cast leaving and entering, but you got the feeling that the film was being followed too closely and as many scenes as possible were being crammed in, some for little more than a few seconds which meant at times the set seemed in constant motion, almost a fairground ride.

It made some passages seem very bitty and disjointed as we rushed from scene to scene, never having the time to see characters develop beyond two dimensional, which was a pity. All right the film might have been more Mills & Boon than Arthur Miller or Tennessee Williams, but at least there wJohnny, Baby and Pennyas enough in there for an audience to feel for the characters, even become emotionally involved.

The constant rapid scene changes might keep up a cracking pace but we needed pauses to allow characters to breathe and develop and for the chemistry between Johnny and Baby to evolve; we never got it and as a result it all seemed a little flat, like skimming through a comic rather than reading a book.

Indeed, apart from a few sniggers and cheers as Johnny tried to hide his modesty as he tried to get out of the tiny bed he had been sharing with Baby, the audience didn’t really get involved until the final scene when the sacked Johnny, storms back and declares “nobody puts Baby in a corner” and we finish on that dance with its iconic lift.

Johnny and Penny teaching Baby the moves of the Mambo

For those who don’t know it, the plot is simple. We are in the summer of 1963, JFK is president, Martin Luther King is leading a civil rights revolution and times are simpler and more innocent than they will ever be again.

Dr Jake Houseman (Julian Harries) has arrived at Kellerman’s with his family where the owner, Max (Roger Martin) is a former patient.

The resort has Harvard and Yale students as waiters, to impress he guests, while dance and the other staff come from the other side – a long way on the other side – of the tracks. Baby Houseman falls for one of “that sort”, dancer Johnny, who makes his money giving dance lessons to women hoping to give him a secondary career as a gigolo.

Dance partner Penny becomes pregnant by Harvard medical student and waiter Robbie (Robert Colvin), Jake thinks Johnny is the callous father after a botched abortion and we end up with a rich versus poor battleground, with love eventually winning through and everyone living happily . . . you get the idea. All right, it’s a bit cheesy, a bit formulaic and hardly taxing to follow, but it worked well enough to give a box office return of 3,600 per cent for the film budget and it still works in the stage version.

But perhaps not as well as it might have done and certainly not as well as the last two touring versions, not that the cast could not be faulted. They did all that was asked of them. Gillian Bruce’s choreography demands a lot of all the dancers and they all delivered with Lewis Griffiths as Johnny and Katie Hartland as Baby not disappointing in their roles.

A mention too for Megan Louch who stepped in to the role of Penny for the indisposed Carlie Milner. Carlie must be quite brilliant if she is better in the role than Megan, who was superb. Penny is the dancer left pregnant by the rich boy, summer job, waiter and Megan provides an air of innocence and vulnerability as well as a sexiness that could start forest fires when she dances, which she does exceedingly well

There are some strong vocals from Jo Servi as Tito, who was also on keyboards, Michael Kent as Billy and Daniela Pobega  as Elizabeth,.

The Musicians’ Union were handing out leaflets claiming that this was a scaled back production in terms of music with just five musicians and backing tracks being used instead of double that number as was the case in previous tours.

Without arguing for or against the union the music did suffer. The sound and tone from a live band working with the singers or dancers is quite different from that created with backing tracks which dictate the pace, the music leading the singers and dancers, rather than following, creating more a karaoke than a performance atmosphere.

As a show it never quite hit the heights but that being said it was an enjoyable evening, with some excellent raunchy dancing, nostalgic music and remained faithful to the plot of the movie and I am sure it will have fans of the film happily smiling and humming (I’ve had) The Time of my life as they head off home. To 03-12-16

Roger Clarke

28-11-16

johnny and baby

 Baby and Johnny by the staff quarters as the story of love, betrayal and class unfolds

 And from the other side of the aisle

****

JUST when Strictly Come Dancing is approaching its climax on TV, Black Country theatre-goers can enjoy a much raunchier story based on the famous film starring Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey.

Eleanor Bergstein’s tale of love involving youngsters at a Catskills holiday camp involves clinches you will never see being considered by Len Goodman and his judges on the box, but they are stunning to see on stage in this all-action show.

Gillian Bruce’s choreography is superb and the all action cast deliver some breathtaking footwork and lifts, plus those sexy clinches, which thrill he audience long before the eagerly anticipated finale when the camp’s dance instructor Johnny Castle drawls ‘nobody puts baby in the corner’.

Katie Hartland is excellent as Frances ‘Baby’ Houseman, youngest daughter of Dr Jake Houseman (Julian Harries) and trouble is brewing when she falls for Johnny despite dad’s warning to ‘stay away from these people’.

Lewis Griffiths dances superbly as the charismatic Johnny, a target for all the ladies, and who is wrongly suspected of being responsible for one of the camp girl’s pregnancy, and there was a fine performance from understudy Megan Louch, who on opening night replaced the indisposed Carlie Miller as the troubled Penny Johnson.

The scene changes are smoothly carried but, Johnny’s room and bed are a shade small for the inevitable love scenes, causing some sniggers in the audience when he is struggling to retain his modesty with the help of a blanket as he yanks up his pants.

Fine singing by Michael Kent (Billy Kostecki) and Daniela Pobega (Elizabeth), plus outstanding contributions from the on-stage musicians, add to the enjoyment for the audience who, on the first night, enthusiastically cheered the splendid cast.

Directed by Federico Bellone, with Richard John’s musical direction, Dirty Dancing runs to 03-12-16.

Paul Marston 

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