For anyone who has seen and loved the movie (which in a show like this is about ninety percent of the audience), Dirty Dancing will deliver exactly what you expect; hot summer nights, hot dance moves, warm-enough vocals and acting, and a burning inferno of nostalgia. The attempts at serious, political themes feel a little shallow, but nobody puts Baby in the corner – and, hey, that’s what matters, right?
Dirty Dancing is a stage adaptation of the iconic movie of the same name, and follows Frances “Baby” Houseman on her first summer at the Kellerman’s resort with her family. Baby falls in love with the dance instructor from the wrong side of the tracks, Johnny Castle, and the two fight for acceptance despite their vastly different backgrounds. The stage version also aims to add more political context to the story, although most of this feels fairly stiff and awkwardly integrated.
The book of the show is remarkably similar to the original movie, and includes all the famous one-liners and moments Dirty Dancing tragics are waiting for, from “I carried a watermelon” to the presage lift that every fan has tried at home (and about half of them have been hospitalised for it). The dance scenes are certainly the focus of the show, occurring almost constantly, while none of the major characters sing at all; the songs tend to serve more as background music rather than building the story.
It’s clear that the performers were hired first and foremost for their dance skills; the dance numbers are phenomenal, combining showy and popular tricks with practiced technique. Maddie Peat, performing as Penny Johnson, is definitely the stand-out dancer, with incredible extensions and control. Vocally, the cast are not incredibly strong, although James D. Smith’s performance as Billy Kostecki is a notable exception. In terms of acting, the performers do the best they can with a fairly limited script and match the Dirty Dancing film expertly. In a musical like this (and probably also the upcoming production of Ghost), actors are appreciated by the audience not on the basis of how well the perform, but how closely they can resemble the version of Dirty Dancing that fans have loved for decades, and the actors in this production do that well.
The choice to have the band play onstage as the Kellerman’s band was an excellent one; it’s an admirable way to highlight performers who often don’t get the attention they deserve, and gives the band a chance to use a little showmanship and interact with the audience.
Other aesthetic choices, like the huge AV screens, were a little more controversial. The pixilation and bright colour sometimes took away from the quaint, 1960’s dynamic that the show tried to maintain, but the creative team obviously realised this and rolled with it, earning cheers from their audience for their laughable attempts at creating woods and lakes with screens and projectors. There was glitch on the screens towards to end, however, that was clearly not as intentional, and while it was just a few pixels of acid green on the backdrop, it was a distraction during the climax of the show.
Dirty Dancing is difficult to judge; if you judge it like a classic musical, things like the shallow script and questionable set choices would be harshly criticised. However, people aren’t going to this show to see a classic musical, they’re going to see their favourite retro movie with a touch of extra sparkle. And with the spectacular dancing, the light-hearted atmosphere and the disco balls, sparkle is there in abundance.
*Paige Mulholland is a volunteer at the Adelaide Festival Centre.