Despite being dragged along to see Chicago, Grease and even High School Musical Live with me, my boyfriend point blank refused to come watch Dirty Dancing. ‘I just don’t think it will be very good,’ he said… and it pains me to say that he might just be right.
Does Dirty Dancing really require any introduction? The film, telling the coming-of-age romance between Frances ‘Baby’ Houseman and dance teacher Johnny Castle, is nothing short of a cult – and now, with its stage adaptation flying high after a successful run in the West End, the cult has come to the Hong Kong’s Cultural Centre.
But does Dirty Dancing successfully transfer from stage to screen? For me, the answer is no. It was originally sold to West End audiences as a musical but honestly, you’ll probably hear more singing eavesdropping on me in the shower. The film is not a musical, just a movie with a killer soundtrack… and the same is disappointingly true of the stage adaptation, which never makes the most of its live theatre setting. What few songs are sung live by characters appear jarringly, with little effort made to merge them into the action. On the day I saw it, there were also pitch problems – with the main female singer, in particular, wavering between wincingly shouty, then vaguely inaudible in the lower end of her range.
Choreography is similarly uninspiring. Whilst the dancing is no doubt competent, part of the thrill of stage musicals is seeing a whole chorus of legs and arms executing moves in perfect synchronicity. Most of the dancing here consists of partner-work with each couple performing different routines and as such, it has little real visual impact. I love creative choreography but this never really steps it up – after you’ve seen one lot of lifts, swoons and samba rolls, you’ve seen them all.
There’s a lot of outward flash to the staging – a rotating segment of stage, sets sliding on and off, elements sliding up and down, movie projections at the back fronts and sides, cast and crew playing musical chairs with props at nearly every opportunity. But actually, for all this supposed panache, it amounts to very little. It feels busy, unnecessary and, when actors tread water on the rotating stage, laughably awkward. During one restaurant scene, the lights dim and then come back up – whereupon the characters are in mid-conversation and we’re supposed to believe that time has leapt to the end of the meal. Choppy scenes and all the props in the world do not a great script make.
Without great live singing, great choreography or great staging, all you are left with is the story – which whilst charming, let’s face it, is pretty thin stuff. The stage adaptation is pretty much a scene-by-scene (and even line-by-line) replay of the film but other than Baby and Johnny, the characters are not real flesh-and-blood but flimsy stock figures. Who knows if most of the cast can really act? They don’t really get given much of a chance to. Nor does the script have enough knowing irreverence for them to play it for laughs either, and the result is two and a half hours that just feels a bit like hard work.
Acting-wise, Bryony Whitfield as Baby supplies the necessary naivety – and obligatory Jennifer Grey frizzy perm. Mila De Biaggi as Johnny’s original dance partner Penny briefly impresses with her crisp clean moves, assured sex appeal and legs longer than most of the songs.
Meanwhile, as Johnny, Gareth Bailey’s prominent forehead, lean body, long limbs and flared trousers reminded me more of Gob in Arrested Development (admittedly, I was in the upper circle, so it could well have actually been Will Arnett and I’d have been none the wiser – and once I got that notion in my head, it was all I could do to stop humming The Final Countdown every time he came on stage!). For me, he lacks the brute physicality and raw sensuality that Patrick Swayze brought to the role, and any chemistry between him and Whitfield is negligible. Not that the script, full of short choppy scenes in ever-changing locations, gives them much chance to develop it anyway.
But there is one thing about Dirty Dancing that not even a cold war could kill. THAT lift. I don’t know how it does it, but whenever I see it happen, something inside me bursts with happiness and I start clapping like a performing seal. With the opening bars of (I’ve Had) The Time Of My Life, you can practically hear little bubbles of euphoria popping around the auditorium. And yes, the lift is still endorphin soaring magical stuff. Sadly, by then, it’s just too little, too late – and even then, Whitfield doesn’t get a big enough run-up to it and Bailey… well, he just isn’t Patrick Swayze. Honestly, Louis Smith doing it on Strictly gave me more chills.
By the end, I felt like I had sat through two hours of not exactly riveting theatre almost purely for THAT lift – and they couldn’t even be bothered to treat us to it again as an encore? Seriously?! Similarly, the fact that no one seems to have thought to put in a crowd-pleasing final medley like many musicals to capitalise on the ending’s feel-good factor just shows to me how misjudged the whole thing is.
In the right hands and with a little creativity, Dirty Dancing could have been a decent little musical – after all, melding disparate songs into a pre-existing story can and has been done before in musical theatre (think Return To The Forbidden Planet or Saturday Night Fever – another not-really-a-musical film that was made into a proper stage one). As such, this isn’t really a review of this production but actually, the adaptation itself – which, in my opinion, is so perfunctory, dull and lazy that I can’t get past it to try judging anything else. If a show is doing so little radically different from the film, it basically renders putting it on stage rather pointless – and misses out on delivering that unique theatrical magic that only live theatre, and especially musical theatre, can bring.
The first thing I did when I got home was Youtube The Time Of My Life from the film. I don’t think I need to say much else.
Dirty Dancing by Lunchbox Productions is at the Hong Kong Cultural Centre from 19 April-12 May 2013. Tickets cost $395-995, available from www.urbtix.hk.
The show then transfers to Singapore from 24 May-16 June, then Manila from 4-21 July; see the website for further details.