Friday, 10 April 2015

Dirty Dancing

Written By: Mark Armstrong

Format: Stage Show
Genre: Romantic Drama
Date: April 9 2015
Location: Liverpool Empire Theatre, Liverpool, England

There's an expression that something can be summed up in a few words. In the world of show business, sometimes it's a song or an image that can be used to perfectly encapsulate such a feeling. And in the case of Dirty Dancing, it is a song and an image which summarises the movie: I've Had The Time Of My Life by Bill Withers and Jennifer Warnes is the song, and the image is of the character of Johnny Castle lifting Baby Houseman into the air. They are the two things which immediately come to mind when you think of this film. But in the theatre, whilst the aforementioned song and the famous closing dance are the stand-out moments, the stage show adaptation of Dirty Dancing has a lot more to offer.

Set in New York's Catskill Mountains in the summer of 1963, Dirty Dancing tells the story of 17-year-old Frances "Baby" Houseman, who is on holiday with her older sister and her parents. There are a bunch of resort activities on offer, but for Baby, there is greater interest to be found in the night-time activities, most notably the all-night dance party that she stumbles upon. It is there, whilst helping Billy Kostecki to carry watermelons, that she meets his cousin Johnny Castle, the main dance instructor, and slowly their relationship begins.

As Baby gradually develops a crush on Johnny, trouble is on the horizon for Castle on a professional front when he learns that his regular dance partner Penny Johnson is pregnant and therefore cannot participate in an upcoming production. Despite its importance, Johnny has no choice but to use Baby in the role, who only has very limited dancing experience. But having used her father's money to pay for an illegal abortion for Penny (with the reason unbeknownst to her dad), it is partly as a favour in return that Baby is given the opportunity. He tries to teach her and whilst she does pick up some moves, others are a struggle. On the night, their routine goes well, but for a brief moment she loses confidence and therefore the lift, the highlight of their performance, is not successfully performed.

We soon discover that Penny's abortion had complications and that only Baby's father can resolve the situation. He does so, but not before misinterpreting a comment by Johnny to meaning that he was the father, so he tells Baby to stay away from Johnny. Instead, they get closer and become a couple, but their relationship remains under secrecy, until a robbery at the resort and false accusations towards Castle leaves Baby with no choice but to reveal the truth about her and Johnny. Whilst his name is cleared of theft, the nature of their relationship still sees him lose his job, and with Baby's holiday drawing to a close, it also seems that her romance with Johnny had been brought to an end, too ... or has it? The final scene explains all, but needless to say, one character ensures that "Nobody puts Baby in a corner".

As the title might suggest, this show features a lot of dancing, the vast majority being extremely advanced and brilliantly executed choreography from a supremely talented crew of dancers. Johnny Castle is the instructor and so his routines have the most attention, but the best dancer of the crew was Penny, played here by Claire Rogers. Rogers puts forth a brilliant effort and steals the show from a dancing standpoint.

In fact, the majority of this show consists of dancing. There is dialogue between characters, but this is largely limited in the first half. There are also musical numbers performed live, as well as some classic tunes being played in the background whilst the dancing is performed centre-stage. This is worth noting because, if you are not a particularly big fan of dance routines, then this may not be your cup of tea, as dance is such a major part of this production. Of course, the name Dirty Dancing should provide a hint of this, so chances are that most spectators should not find this to be a problem.

Roseanna Frascona puts in a strong performance as Baby, but Lewis Kirk pulling off the role of Johnny Castle to a high standard for the key dance scenes is particularly impressive when you consider that he is actually substituting on the Liverpool leg of this tour for Gareth Bailey, who recently suffered an ankle injury. Also of note are the use of humour in certain dance routines and musical performances, and the effortless manner in which the stage can be transformed into so many locations, from a dancehall to a field to a river. This is achieved in large part by the stunning scenery effects, the range of which include the curtain screen showing a heavy rainstorm, the use of a toppling tree in the forest, and the disco-balls which light up during the final scene. When it comes to turning a theatre stage into the set of a major motion picture, Dirty Dancing is very successful.

On the downside, I found the main storyline a little hard to follow, even as it edged towards the climax. You can see what is happening, but you are not sure where it is heading. Those unfamiliar with the movie would assume that the plotline was leading up to the initial performance with Johnny and Baby as opposed to the developments which come later on. There were also some minor audio issues near the beginning which made it difficult to hear what some characters were saying. And whilst the show is faithful to the movie, it is worth noting that the second half is a lot better than the first half, so the lead storyline may develop a little too slowly for some.

Overall, I found Dirty Dancing to be a very good show. The dancing is simply spectacular, and the scenery and special effects are of a high calibre. The performers suit their roles, and as stated Rogers is someone whose performance leaves a lasting impression. I had a good time, and for diehard fans of Dirty Dancing, there should be enough entertainment to give them a lift and ensure that they have the time of their lives.

Overall Rating: 8/10 - Very Good

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