The stage adaptation of Eighties film blockbuster Dirty Dancing, which has topped West End box office records with advance ticket sales of £12 million, received its UK premiere last night (24 October 2006, previews from 29 September) at the Aldwych Theatre (See News, 24 Feb 2006).
At an upmarket American holiday camp called Kellerman’s in the summer of 1963, Baby Houseman falls in love with the camp's working class dance instructor Johnny Castle (Patrick Swayze in the iconic 1987 film), whose climactic line, “Nobody puts Baby in the corner”, has since become a classic. It stars Josef Brown (from the original stage production in Australia) and Georgina Rich as Johnny and Baby.
Brown and Rich are joined in the London cast by David Rintoul as Baby’s father Dr Jake Houseman, Issy Van Randwyck as Baby’s mother Marjorie, Isabella Calthorpe as Baby’s sister Lisa and Nadia Coote (from the Australian production) as Penny.
Dirty Dancing has been adapted for the stage by the film’s screenwriter Eleanor Bergstein, who based the story’s setting on her own childhood experiences of family holidays in America’s Catskill Mountains. In addition to recordings of period hits, the stage show includes hit songs from the film including “Hungry Eyes”, “She’s Like the Wind” and “(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life”. The stage production is directed by James Powell and designed by Stephen Brimson-Lewis, with choreography by Kate Champion and music direction by Chris Newton.
With such a recognisable title and already-unprecedented sales, Dirty Dancing is nigh on critic-proof. Nevertheless, the critics attended the first night along with a star-studded audience. While they largely enjoyed the spectacle of the dances and the complex and impressive scenery, most questioned why they didn’t stay at home with the DVD as the stage adaptation, they felt, added little to the film. So, while being drawn into the modern fairy tale-type story, critics didn’t quite have the time of their lives.
Michael Coveney on Whatsonstage.com (2 stars) – “It’s admirable that the show follows the 1987 film so faithfully, because Eleanor Bergstein’s story is a good one… The ensemble dance numbers come thrillingly alive in Kate Champion’s choreography, and the central couple of Josef Brown and Georgina Rich are much more attractive than Swayze and Jennifer Grey in the movie, Brown especially taking Johnny on to a higher level of sexual intensity and technical dance ability. He also doesn’t have too annoying a hairstyle. The score is a jukebox of the Chantels, the Drifters, Tina Turner, Otis Redding, and so on, but it doesn’t have the coherent texture of a ‘proper’ musical and often seems quite arbitrary. In the end, you feel as though you’ve been cudgelled by a brand product, not gone through the genuine experience of musical theatre.”
Benedict Nightingale in The Times (4 stars) – “This makes Hans Christian Andersen look like a kitchen-sink realist. But who cares when Brown is on the dance floor or (inevitably) in his bedroom…. When he and Rich’s Baby are at their sinuous best, you feel what that movie suggested. Dancing isn’t almost as good as sex. No, sex is almost as good as dancing – or, rather, both are indivisible. Maybe that’s enough to justify a show which adds so little to the original.... All this is brilliantly staged, but raises an obvious question. Why not get a DVD of the movie…? Yet I found myself warming to Bergstein’s modern fairy story and to the principals: Brown, elegant of mind and spirit as well as body, and Rich, growing in assurance, skill and beauty as she takes her life into her own hands – and, of course, her own feet.”
Quentin Letts in the Daily Mail – “The best thing about Dirty Dancing is its ending. It’s not a case of ‘thank God the thing’s over’… it’s that at last, after nearly three hours of huffing and puffing, after endless scenelets, 55 tunes and more hoofing than you get in the Epson Derby, this over-plugged, under-acted, hyper-pumped commercial vehicle achieves lift-off…. The set has swivelling gizmos aplenty. Platforms keep rising and falling, to the point that any theatregoer who has dined too heavily may start to feel queasy…. Dirty Dancing is a night of good, jiggly rubbish, blameless silliness which ends with an uplifting finale. It’s hard to dislike it, but it’s also hard to call it memorable art. It’s a product, and it shows.”
Lyn Gardner in the Guardian (2 stars) – “Less full-blown musical and more a play with a musical soundtrack…. When somebody does break into song, it often looks like a mistake. Even the leads appear to have been cast for their physical similarity to the original stars…. In the movie, Baby and Johnny's lessons in dance and love come across like an exceptionally sexy soap powder commercial. Here they come across like an advert for soap powder being shot on the cheap. Why spend £35 a ticket on this when you can rent a DVD for far less and leave your seat to make a cup of tea during the smoochy boring bits?... The point about Baby is that she is only learning to dance, so the routines between her and Johnny which take up an awful lot of the show have slightly less appeal than the routines on Strictly Come Dancing. It is not so much dirty dancing as mildly dishevelled dancing…. The show… is so busy serving up helpings of double cheese that it entirely neglects to incorporate any narrative drive or tension.”
Paul Taylor in the Independent – “The dancing… is the delight of James Powell's attractively staged and happiness-spreading production of the nifty theatrical adaptation by Eleanor Bergstein. True, as Johnny, the chippy dance instructor at the up-market American Butlins, Josef Brown does not have the balletic dynamism of Patrick Swayze in the movie, nor does he have the latter's capacity to make you root for the little man, as he's a tall, strapping mass of muscle. But he and the well-cast Georgina Rich - who brings light physical grace and just the right kind of unconventional attractiveness to the role of doctor's daughter, ‘Baby’ Houseman - radiate an infectious pleasure in their dancing together. This is a show that will give keen pleasure to Dirty Dancing addicts and to newcomers alike…. The music is a mixture of recorded golden oldies…. in general, this is a very enjoyable evening.”
- by Caroline Ansdell