Dancing to the beat of audience hearts

Dirty Dancing – The Classic Story on Stage (John Frost, Karl Sydow, Martin McCallum & Joye Entertainment in association with Lionsgate & Magic Hour Productions)

QPAC, Lyric Theatre

May 28 – July 19

“Dirty Dancing – The Classic Story on Stage” is one of those ‘it is what it is’ shows; it is far from high culture and hardly groundbreaking theatre, but for fans of the movie (and let’s face it, what gal isn’t?) this doesn’t really matter. What matters is the experience and its fidelity to the feelings generated in response to the much-loved 1997 film.

The story has not changed. It’s the summer of 1963 and 17 year old Frances (Baby) Houseman is on holidays at Kelleman’s resort in New York’s Catskill Mountains with her older sister and parents. When she stumbles upon a staff dance party, her life is changed forever as she is steps in to become the resort dance instructor Johnny Castle’s partner in dance and more.

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Scenes are faithful to the movie, down to the smallest nuances of movement and reaction, however, intimate moments do not always translate in emotion to a large venue staging. Perhaps to stretch out what is only a 100 minute movie, the stage show features the addition of some extra scenes, often with the focus on emphasising the turbulent political climate of its 1960s context, however, these are unnecessary and not in keeping with the feel of the story.

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Certainly establishment of this context is important, as is highlighted in the display of information in the QPAC tunnel, however, ultimately this is a coming-of-age story that has transcended this to become more about its cheesy one-liners – think, “I carried a watermelon” and “nobody puts baby in the corner.”

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Kirby Burgess is a charmingly naïve and idealistic Baby, bringing, at times, a depth to the character that touches on the story’s feminist discourse, balanced with an inner dag that explodes in her secret solo dance practice “Wipeout” scene. As the sexy dance instructor, Johnny, Kurt Phelan is very Hugh Jackman-esque in his demeanour – all hunk of manly man of experience with all the right dance moves. And their bedroom bungalow scene is as hot as ever.

Adam Murphy and Penny Martin put in solid performances are Baby’s parents who feature more in the stage show due to a number of Act Two filler scenes. Although the fleshing out of their characters is largely unnecessary (it is not the sort of show requiring fully-formed characters), they keep things grounded. Murphy, in particular, should be commended for his portrayal of a character so iconically brought to life by the late Jerry Orbach, for to command the stage as he does in a scene in which he never even speaks a word, is the mark of an accomplished performer.

This ‘you let me down too daddy’ scene represents one of the few times the show’s momentum pauses for breath. Act One especially begins with a whirlwind (and sometimes clunkily transitioned) tour through its introductory scenes and perhaps, consequently, by the time Act Two arrives, the energy is beginning to wane. The soundtrack, however, is full of energy in its evocation of the era, leaving the audience wanting more than just abbreviated versions of some of the movie’s iconic songs.

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The problem is its confused identity as it is made clear that his is not a musical, but instead a dance show. And while the dancing is good and fully of energy, it lacks variety beyond raising legs high overhead, accompanied with some bumping and grinding. The moves are indeed impressive…. on first observation. With repetition, the desire is for something a little bit more. Attempts to add interest are included in staging with the projection of grass and water for the learning to dance montage which are effective in recreating the movie’s imagery, however, when Johnny ‘drives’ Baby back to the Kellermans after their dance performance at the nearby Sheldrake resort, it is in an imaginary car, which brings laughs to the scene for all the wrong reasons.

“Dirty Dancing – The Classic Story on Stage” is a nostalgic nod to a much loved film, sure to dance to the beat of fan’s hearts. It’s a perfect girls night out, complete with catchy songs, frozen watermelon daiquiris and a whole lot of pink, but it is what it is – a Clayton’s musical of questionable quality.

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Production photos c/o – http://dirtydancingaustralia.com

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