Friday, October 09, 2015

Dirty Dancing (Venue Cymru, Llandudno)

It felt like I was the only person in the audience who hadn't seen the film, but I'm sure that wasn't true because there were other men there too. Sure, the men were outnumbered by the women 10-1, but I bet a fair few of those men had seen the Dirty Dancing film under duress, or had acquired knowledge of it by osmosis.

Because Dirty Dancing is seriously big for women of a certain age. Along with Ghost and Pretty Woman, it's one of those films they completely lose themselves in, just like men do with Star Wars or Rocky or Top Gun. So although I expected to be surrounded by a majority of ladies when I went to see Dirty Dancing ("The Classic Story on Stage"), I wasn't quite prepared for the unadulterated excitement and passion that I witnessed. It was exhilarating!

The lady next to me was reciting whole passages of dialogue, word for word, verbatim, as they were spoken on stage (thankfully, her husband kept shushing her). The row behind me was very excited before the curtain lifted, swapping memories of the classic 1987 movie, and giving their thoughts about Patrick Swayze (I eventually had to tune out as these thoughts were getting a little too racy!).

Lewis Kirk as Johnny Castle
And when the curtain lifted and the music struck up, the roar from the crowd was as if Swayze himself had just skidded onto stage. But of course, it couldn't have been Swayze, although the brave performer taking his place - Lewis Kirk - certainly managed to fill the gap admirably. As dance instructor Johnny Castle, Kirk certainly has the physique and the moves - his hips swivel like corkscrews and his mastering of the various dance styles (merengue, cha cha cha, Latin) is a pleasure to watch. And while it's obvious he has a body like Michelangelo's David under that tight black shirt, when he does whip it off, nobody can fail to be impressed. When he strips down to little white shorts, the crowd melts into a sea of lust.

His partner in all this is Jessie Hart as Frances "Baby" Houseman. She dons a frizzy wig to strike up a resemblance to the film's Jennifer Grey, but she really doesn't need that. Jessie is obviously talented enough to make Baby her own on stage, and it's a delight to watch her develop the character from clumsy beginner to burgeoning success. It's not easy to dance badly on purpose when you're a professionally trained performer. I mean, I can dance badly very naturally, but when you've had years of theatrical training, it must take special concentration to make it look poor. Same goes for Lewis Kirk when he is failing to learn a new dance move in the mirror - he falls to the floor each time, making it look natural but done with the utmost skill.

Jessie Hart as "Baby" Houseman
Kirk and Hart have genuine chemistry (which they ought to by this stage in the tour) but thankfully do not quite manage to put everybody else in the shade. Other stand-out performances include Carlie Milner as Johnny's regular dancing partner Penny, whose legs go on forever and who has real presence, both with Johnny and when teaching Baby. She gives this slightly written character as much as she can, and her personal story is one of the most engaging of what is, to be frank, a thinly plotted show.

I loved Georgina Castle as Lisa Houseman, whose rendition of Hula Hana is magnificently bad (it's meant to be, by the way!). Having seen the film's Jane Brucker do it on YouTube, I'd say Georgina far exceeds the original. It's a lovely little solo moment for her, and she had the audience chuckling and squirming in equal measure.

Matthew Colthart is the handsome, amiable Billy Kostecki, and with his background in touring with Dreamboats and Petticoats, he makes for a perfectly quiffed 1960s teddy boy. Matthew has worked as vocal arranger for the likes of Will Young, Florence Welch and Barry Manilow so knows a thing or two about singing. It is he who bravely takes on Bill Medley's role for the show's signature tune, (I've Had) The Time of My Life, and for his solo piece, In the Still of the Night, he has an impressive range.

Quick mentions also for Kane Verrall as the geeky Neil Kellerman, who provides plenty of laughs during his pathetic attempts to dance; Stephen Brimson Lewis for some simple but effective, flexible set design; and Jon Driscoll for some stunning video and projection design which manages to transport the story to any location required. The scenes with Baby and Johnny in a cornfield, and then the ocean, are impressively executed.

Not everything's perfect. I thought the musical accompaniment from the excellent live orchestra was too high in the sound mix, particularly at the beginning when some of the actors were having to shout at the top of their voices for their dialogue to be barely heard. And although Mark Faith's performance as Mr Schumacher was absolutely fine, I found the character quickly swung from amusing to irritating. I couldn't see the need for him: the one-note laughs he provided quickly wore thin on me.

Nobody puts Baby in
a corner!
As I said, I've never seen the film, but when Johnny is sent packing toward the end of the story, I felt a frisson of excitement begin to bubble under in the audience around me. It's the final talent show of the season, and Baby is watching from the sidelines with her family, mourning the departure of her romantic hero. And then it happens - he comes back! This is obviously a big moment for fans of the film and the crowd went bananas as Lewis Kirk made his entrance at the back of the theatre and strutted his leather-clad way to the stage to deliver that immortal line: "Nobody puts Baby in a corner". The crowd went into meltdown, the first few chords of that Bill Medley and Jennifer Warne ballad struck up, and I finally felt it. I felt what it was that women love about Dirty Dancing. The sheer romance of it, how any young girl who's felt unrequited love or lust can put herself in Baby's place and dream of finding her own Johnny Castle some day.

The closing performance of (I've Had) The Time of My Life is exhilarating, and Kirk and Hart are faultless, with Baby finally managing that lift (crowd goes crazy) and Johnny swivelling those hips like a tornado (crowd goes mental). The musical arrangement is electrifying for this song. It really had to be.

I wouldn't say seeing the stage show has made me want to seek out the film. I get the impression I've seen the best of this story, what there is of it, but that's not to damn with faint praise. This live show is everything Dirty Dancing can be, minus the obvious chemistry of the film's original stars. But anyone who craves Swayze and Grey can watch the DVD. Their Johnny and Baby are captured forever on celluloid. But seeing it live on stage right in front of you, with performers more than capable of matching expectations - there's nothing quite like it. The screaming, air-punching ladies all around me certainly agreed.

The stats
Writer: Eleanor Bergstein
Director: Sarah Tipple
Cast: Jessie Hart (Frances "Baby" Houseman); Lewis Kirk (Johnny Castle); Carlie Milner (Penny Johnson); Georgina Castle (Lisa Houseman); Colin Charles (Tito Suarez); Matthew Colthart (Billy Kostecki); James Coombes (Dr Jake Houseman); Mark Faith (Mr Schumacher); Lori Haley Fox (Marjorie Houseman); Michael Remick (Max Kellerman); Kane Verrall (Neil Kellerman); James Bennett, Albey Brookes, Sarah Cortez, Selina Hamilton, Antony Hewitt, Verity Jones, Robin Lake, Garry Lee, Carly Miles, Simone Mistry-Palmer, Marlon Moore, Tom Scanlon, Brandon Lee Sears, Natalie Winsor (swing/ ensemble)
Performed at Venue Cymru, Llandudno, October 6th to 17th, 2015. Performance reviewed: October 8th, 2015

Dirty Dancing UK Tour website (retrieved Oct 7 2015)
Dirty Dancing on Venue Cymru website (retrieved Oct 7 2015)
Dirty Dancing electronic press kit (2014) (retrieved Oct 7 2015)
Dirty Dancing soundtrack on Spotify (retrieved Oct 7 2015)

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