Dancing down a familiar path

Hungry Eyes: Baby, Jill Wintermitz, and Johnny, Paul-Michael Jones. Pictures: Alastair Muir

Dirty Dancing

Birmingham Hippodrome

*****

WHEN it comes to having the time of your life producer Karl Sydow seems to have found the answer, as far as audiences are concerned, with this king-size slice of feel-good theatre.

The stage version of the original low-budget film is a real crowd pleaser with iconic moments from the original 1987 film bringing gasps and cheers from an enthusiastic audience – or at least all the women, after all this is still a bit of a chick-flick and no doubt embedded deep in girls' night out territory.

It was the film that made the late Patrick  Swayze a star as the troubled mountain resort hotel dance teacher from the wrong side of the tracks and it was the film that made it cool for blokes to dance.

And Paul-Michael Jones is a tribute to that legacy as Johnny Castle, the tall, dark and handsome teacher, lovely mover and rough diamond. His CV includes representing England in the World Championships in Singapore in Latin and Ballroom dancing, so he doesn't disappoint in the dance department or, from the reaction of the ladies in the audience, in other departments either.

Into his life comes Frances ‘Baby' Houseman, played with a nice touch of vulnerability by American actress Jill Wintermitz who only took on the role when the show reached Birmingham but looks as if she has played it for years.

Baby, on holiday with her parents and sister, has that teenage yearning to save the world, so becomes embroiled in the staff drama at the upmarket family hotel in the Catskills in New York when she helps out Johnny's dance partner Penny, played by Nicky Griffiths

She has been in the tour since the start but only took on the challenging role of Penny last week.

The challenge is looking like a professional dancer – and after Strictly Come Dancing isn't everyone now an expert judge? – and she doesn't fail on that score or any other for that matter, bucking up the interest of husbands and boyfriends in the audience no end.

Baby feels that first wonder of teenage romance with the man with a reputation, Johnny Castle

Baby's attempts to help bring her into conflict with her father Dr Jake Houseman played with quite authority by James Coombes.

He is probably the most famous member of the cast by far – except if he doesn't dress in black and swing down on a rope from the dress circle to deliver a box of chocs to a woman in the front row just because she loves them . . . you probably wouldn't recognise him. He was the Milk Tray Man of the 1980s.

Meanwhile back at Kellerman's hotel and our tale of that first teenage romance where Johnny is being accused of everything from being a gigolo to theft as his troubles mount and he even clashes with the super nerdy, ultra weedy, Neil Kellerman, nephew of the resort owner Max (Michael Remick). Nerdy Neil, saved from bullies by Johnny, still likes to throw his Uncles weight around to tell Johnny who is boss.

Neil is played by Stefan Menaul, another newcomer and not just to the part; this is his first professional role and he tweeted before the show that he was both excited and nervous about his first ever Press night. Poor lad; he needn't have worried – like a duck to water springs to mind and his awkward dancing was a little comic gem. No one would ever have known he was a newbie. He is going to be all right.

As for awkward . . .  Baby's sister Lisa, played by Emilia Williams, takes the prize for her rendition of Hula for the hotel talent show.

Singing badly with exaggerated arm gestures is easy, plenty of people do it quite naturally as can be seen in any karaoke bar, but to sing that badly with gestures that bizarre takes real talent; she is very funny.

It was in contrast to some fine singing of 60's classics from the likes of Colin Charles playing Tito Suarez, who has a hint of Nat King Cole about his dulcet tones, and Wayne Smith as Johnny's brother Billy who also shows a fine voice.

The lively ensemble are a class singing and dancing act in their own right driving the story along at a cracking pace all helped by an impressive lighting design from Tim Mitchell and an awesome set designed by Stephen Brimson Lewis.

Sliding shutters and a revolving stage make scene changes instant and seamless  aided by huge video screens and stage-sized back.

More watermelon vicar? Baby's strange invitation card to the underground staff party where she first sees dirty dancing

It is expensive, effective and I suspect has technicians sitting with white knuckles and fingers crossed each time the curtain goes up.

The video creations from Jon Driscoll takes the use of video on stage to a new level producing forests, a holiday camp, hotel grounds, a night club and even a lake with an impressive interpretation of the iconic film scene where Johnny and Baby practice lifts in the water.

It works well, particularly as this is the faithful stage version of a much-loved film, and makes the whole thing slick and fast paced helped by direction from Sarah Tipple and impressive choreography from Kate Champion.

While we are at it the costumes from Jennifer Irwin were spot on - speaking as one who was around in 1963 when the musical is set, and who remembers not just the fashion but the old fashioned morality of a more innocent time displayed at Kellermans.

If there was a fault the sound took a few minutes to balance at the start but whatever the problems they were quickly cured and still on sound the seven-piece band, perched on a shelf at the back of the stage, under Musical Director Tom Deering were magnificent.

So what did we learn? Well guys who are off to Ivy League colleges are not always nice and guys from the bad parts of town are not always nasty, while things are not always what they seem; truth will always out and love always wins through in the end to the cheers of all the women in the audience who, as one, went into raptures  as Johnny stormed through the audience to the stage to declare the immortal line "nobody puts Baby in a corner".

All leather and shades he drag her out of said corner followed by the first strains of  (I've had) The Time of My Life to signal the finale and that much practised, can-she can't-she lift. Cue cheers and obligatory standing ovation. Schmaltz or what!

Despite it being a chick-flick even guys will find Dirty Dancing gets to them. It delivers everything it promised  - Dirty Dancing, live on stage. What more could you ask? To 25-08-12.

Roger Clarke 

 Interview with Karl Sydow

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