THE 1987 movie Dirty Dancing essentially had three things going for it. Well, four, if you count Patrick Swayze. There was an iconic theme tune, (I’ve Had) The Time of My Life. There was an iconic movie moment – that lift, when Swayze hoists Jennifer Grey above his head in the lake. And there was an iconic line: “Nobody puts Baby in a corner.”
But there’s a reason why films are films and theatre is theatre. Successful adaptations from one medium to another recognise this and fundamentally rebuild their story in a way that transforms it into something new and creative.
What screenwriter Eleanor Bergstein has done is pickle her film script in aspic and recreate it, virtually frame by frame, on stage. She and director Sarah Tipple even reinforce this notion by projecting images and footage onto the vast white set, so the lake ‘lift’, for example, is performed through a screen on which is displayed a gently rippling body of water. It’s clunky, unconvincing and, ultimately, a cheat.
For fans of the film – and the auditorium seems choc-a-bloc with them – it’s a faithful, if inevitably rather pale, imitation of its source material. For lovers of live theatre, paying fifty-odd quid for a stalls seat, it feels uncomfortably like cynical exploitation. The whole approach is fraught with problems. I shan’t dwell on them, except to moan that the decision to use a kind of filmic underscore of pop songs from the 1963 era is disappointingly undercut by the criminal waste of the fabulous on-stage band, with the producers opting instead for recorded tracks through the majority of the show.
What can’t be denied is the extraordinary talent put to energetic use in the pursuit of this strange endeavour. Swayze himself may not be available, but even without him, the dancing is sensational. Paul-Michael Jones reveals his trained background in the Swayze role, looking every bit the part, and he’s matched step for step in the routines by Charlotte Gooch as his summer camp dance partner whose accidental pregnancy kicks off what little there is in the way of a plot. Meanwhile, Emily Holt as Baby looks a lot like Jennifer Grey and manages the transition from shy ugly duckling to dirty dancing swan capably enough.
So if you’re prepared to put away any critical faculties and simply sit back and enjoy the choreography, then by all means go for it. It’s colourful, vibrant and leaves you breathless. But renting the DVD is cheaper.