It’s been called “the biggest live theatre sensation of all time” and judging by the reaction from the audience in Newcastle last night – that wouldn’t be such an outrageous statement.
Based on, of course, the iconic 1987 film starring Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey, this stage adaptation has been a hit throughout Europe, North America and Australia. The year is 1963: America is still innocent, JFK has yet to be assassinated and Martin Luther King Jr. is preparing to deliver his landmark “I have a dream” speech. The plot here follows Frances “Baby” Houseman on vacation with her family at Kellerman’s resort up in the Catskills, as she falls for Johnny Castle, the sexy dance teacher, who teaches her how to move and pair up with him for the big end of summer dance show.
The film is not a musical – so here, the plot is interspersed with songs from it’s legendary soundtrack. Tunes like Be My Baby, Hungry Eyes, She’s Like the Wind and Do You Love Me? are chock full of nostalgia and save the show from becoming your run-of-the-mill jukebox musical. They are performed primarily by supporting players Tito Suarez, Daniela Pobega and Michael Kent, although it would have been nice to see the main cast in vocal action. Some songs aren’t performed at all, but rather just played as they were in the film, which again is something I wasn’t expecting and didn’t necessarily want. Kent gives a touching rendition of In the Still of the Night, though.
Where another Swayze film-to-musical, Ghost, uses ultra-modern technology and contemporary music to tell its story, this production uses good old-fashioned nostalgia and a hark back to simpler times with great success. It’s quaint set turns and twirls, from dance hall to cabin to the lake, like it could be one the dancers who hoof across it. The K emblazoned on it could as easily stood for ‘kitsch’ as it does for Kellerman’s.
Lewis Griffiths plays Johnny with pure sex appeal. He has the majority-female audience eating out of his hand right from his entrance and gives great Swayze swagger as he seduces Baby, stands up to Robbie and faces off against Mr Houseman in his daughter’s honour. One scene in particular, where Griffiths rises from bed in barely-there underwear caused genuine squeals from women old enough to know better. He’s a force to be reckoned with, whether on the dance floor teaching Baby the Mambo or comforting Penny off.
Katie Hartland – in one of her first major theatre roles – shines as Baby. She blossoms from awkward beginner to bona-fide dancing queen in front of our eyes and takes us on a touching journey of growth with her. Baby’s sister Lisa’s hula number in the talent contest is performed with great gusto and comedic flair by Lizzie Otley, who gradually becomes more of a scene-stealer throughout.
Carlie Milner’s Penny is, for me, the star of the piece. Not only is the statuesque siren a phenomenal dancer, best shown in the early scenes of hers and Johnny’s fierce partnership, but her truly heartbreaking portrayal of a woman in tearful torment, left with an unplanned pregnancy by a man who doesn’t care was unexpectedly searing, but more than appreciated.
One of the (many) perks of a show with an ending that the audience is expecting and so passionately wants, is that when it finally arrives, it makes quite an impact. The infamous closing number, (I’ve had) The Time of my Life ends the show on a dizzying high, the film’s iconic choreography matched step by step here and that lift executed flawlessly.
I wasn’t expecting to love it quite as much as I did but there’s something to be said for a show that can reduce a grown woman to teenage pandemonium and a grown man to goosebumps, within the same number. The time of your life? Without a doubt.
Dirty Dancing is at the Theatre Royal Newcastle until Saturday January 28. For more information and for tickets, call the box office on 08448 11 21 21 or click here
Photos: Wizard Productions