Dirty Dancing

Kurt Phelan (Johnny) and Kirby Burgess (Baby) photo by Jeff BusbyHaving been at the world premiere of Dirty Dancing in Sydney’s Theatre Royal in 2004, it was interesting to be able to re-connect with this show ten years later at the Australian premiere of this brand new production.

Despite a cool reception from local critics at the time, the stage version, which starred Kym Valentine and Josef Brown, proved popular with audiences, and after the Sydney season, toured Australia and New Zealand for eighteen months before moving on to a sell-out season in Hamburg, Germany.

When the 2006 London season secured a West End record of eleven million pounds in advance bookings, the show became something of a phenomenon. While the critics continue to be mystified by its success, audiences flock to see Dirty Dancing where-ever it is staged, and productions of it have continued to tour internationally ever since.

This slick new production, crisply directed by James Powell, with ingenious new set designs by Stephen Brinson Ellis which make extensive use of pretty video projections to accomplish seamless transitions and reproduce key scenes from the film, clearly illustrates why this show has remained so popular.

An additional 20 scenes have been added by its creator, Eleanor Bergstein, who also wrote the movie, making the stage show an even more slavishly faithful re-telling of the hugely popular 1987 film. Each scene from the movie is carefully reproduced; every line and every song appears to have been retained, allowing the audience to relive the story of a teenage girl’s relationship with a dance instructor while on summer vacation with her family exactly as they remember it from the movie.

Kirby Burgess is endearing and engaging in the pivotal role of Frances “Baby” Houseman. Her accomplished transition from awkward teenager to skilled dirty dancer is both engaging and convincing. (Perhaps not so, in the scene when she goes swimming and her hair doesn’t get wet).

As the rebellious dance tutor, Johnny Castle, Kurt Phelan lacks the overt in-your-face sexual magnetism of a Swayze or a Brown, but he’s handsome and an excellent dancer, and gets plenty of opportunity to shine during the many energetic dance numbers. Despite his rather wooden acting, he still managed to draw cheers from the first night audience with his rather unconvincing delivery of the ‘Nobody puts Baby in a corner’ line.

Curiously, none of the songs advance the storytelling. They simply set the mood, or provide background for the various scenes. None of the leading characters get to sing, but charismatic young tenor, Mark Vincent and Anna Freeland, as staff members in the holiday camp, impress in a succession of familiar well-known songs which accompany the action.

Reprising the role she created in the original production, Nadia Coote remains a stand-out as the dance teacher, Penny Johnson. Her dancing is sensational and she commands the stage in all her scenes. Teagan Wouters as Baby’s envious older sister also scores with her funny ‘Hula’ audition turn. The rest of the cast enthusiastically portray a variety of stereotypical characters who inhabit the holiday camp as the familiar story unfolds.

Even if the second act bogs down a little in the minutia of the storytelling, and the fascination with the colourful videoed scenery begins to wane, the audience seemed happily engrossed, laughed and applauded every familiar line, until the inevitable moment when Johnny Castle held Baby aloft in that familiar pose and the theatre erupted into a standing ovation, you didn’t need to be rocket scientist to tell (sorry, can’t resist) they had had the time of their lives.

Dirty Dancing
Sydney Lyric Theatre, Pirrama Road, Sydney
Performance: Friday 28 November 2014
Season continues to 8 February 2015
Bookings: 1300 795 267 or online at: www.ticketmaster.com.au

For more information, visit: www.dirtydancingaustralia.com for details.

Image: Kurt Phelan as Johnny Castle and Kirby Burgess as Frances ‘Baby’ Houseman in Dirty Dancing – photo by Jeff Busby

Review: Bill Stephens