Saturday, 24 May 2014

Dirty Dancing, Piccadilly Theatre

At a loss one evening in London, an impromptu decision to go and see Dirty Dancing was a brilliant one.

Playing at the Piccadilly Theatre, in the heart of the West End, 'The Classic Story On Stage' only has a presence in London until March 2014 before launching its second UK tour in recent years. The bustle of Piccadilly Circus offers an element of charm and glamour that you don't quite get with theatres outside of London. The theatre and its location becomes, in itself, an experience - prefiguring the charisma and spirit of the show.

I don't know why I hadn't seen Dirty Dancing before now. As a regular theatre go-er and a long-time fan of Ardolino's Dirty Dancing, I'm unsure why the stage production had never been a priority for me. Perhaps I was worried that it wouldn't compare: that the stage Catskill Mountains wouldn't compare, and that Patrick Swayze was the only Johnny!

But, from the second the show opened, it was set to be impressive. It's 1963 and we're introduced to the Catskill Mountain Holiday Camp. Baby (Jill Winternitz) is holidaying with her family - and they are surrounded by a group of doting holiday entertainers, including Johnny Castle (Paul-Michael Jones) the 'bad-boy' dance instructor. Unimpressed by the dire range of organised activities, Baby acquaints herself with the Camp staff. Baby and Johnny's relationship is, initially, an uncertain one. And then a languorous one. And then an inevitable one.


 Jill Winternitz's Baby was everything it was supposed to be: na├»ve, endearing and admirably ballsy. Coupled with Paul-Michael Jones' suave performance of Johnny Castle, the two established a really strong lead - from which the entirety of the production developed. However, the real star of the show for me was Charlotte Gooch. Penny is a notoriously difficult character to play. Gooch entwined the peppy showgirl with a suddenly vulnerable expectant mother impeccably, offering a compelling sensitivity - that which is so hard to portray in such a large theatre. James Coombes should also be recognised for his extremely honest depiction of Mr Houseman, Baby's father. Establishing himself as a character who can be trusted, Coombes' Mr Houseman proved a sincere voice of reason, grounding the musical in authenticity.

As far as musicals go, Eleanor Bergstein's script offers relatively few songs, at least relative to the amount of dialogue. Though often criticised for this adaptation, I think I preferred it. It enables Dirty Dancing to offer something that other musicals tend to lack: a really solid storyline. This creates an environment through which the audience can truly empathise with Penny, and genuinely root for Baby and Johnny's happy ending.

By the very nature of the musical, of course the dialogue is intercepted by a plethora of exciting dance numbers.  Kate Champion's choreography is impressive in its scale and stamina, if not slightly predictable in its construction. Despite a cast of undeniably skilled dancers, my main criticism would be that Charlotte Gooch (Penny) is relied upon to carry the large majority of dances. In the grand scheme of the production however, all dance numbers are remarkably slick and fast-paced.

I wanted to love Dirty Dancing on stage as much as I loved the film. And I almost did. Tipple successfully captured the outwardly rosy, but implicitly troubled, tone - aided by an extremely talented and powerful cast. Combined, this produced a thoroughly enjoyable and captivating performance. 


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