Baby mightn't belong in the corner but the producers certainly do
I say women, because Dirty Dancing seems calculated to appeal to a certain ideal of femininity, nascent and pliable. Baby [Kirby Burgess] goes from the apple of her father’s eye to the watermelon of her lover’s eye, with nothing in between. There is none of the fear and isolation that is normally associated with the pain of growing up.
In fact, any pain that happens in this story – and there isn’t a lot – happens outside the dynamic of the central couple’s relationship. Johnny [Kurt Phelan] dances with the incredibly talented but unfortunate Penny [Maddie Peat], until an unwanted pregnancy forces her out of a paying gig. In the search for a replacement, all the other professional dancers are overlooked in favour of Baby, an untried and awkward amateur.
Eleanor Bergstein adapts her own film script into this strange stage version, technically neither a musical nor a proper play. Despite the presence of a band and a few people who can sing, much of the music is pre-recorded, and even what is live functions as background noise, precisely like a film soundtrack. Structurally it mimics film techniques, using short snatches of dialogue to quicken pace rather than fully realised scenes. It even has a montage.
As performers, the central lovers are almost cruelly mismatched. Burgess is simply wonderful, making the fairly bland character of Baby pulse with sensuality and warmth. Her depiction of the young ingénue discovering her own sexuality is so consummate the audience forgets just how clichéd and pat her character arc really is. She effortlessly outclasses Jennifer Grey’s irritating turn in the film.
Sadly, Phelan is a total misfire as the dangerous stallion Johnny Castle (the name is ludicrous, suggesting something that needs to be stormed). While Patrick Swayze was hardly a fine actor, he did at least possess real conviction and physicality in the role. Phelan comes across as smarmy and camp. He never takes hold of the part, and his performance reads as a cheap knock-off – more moat than castle.
No one else fairs any better. Peat is a spectacular dancer but can’t act to save herself. Adam Murphy and Penny Martin can’t save the dreadfully written parts of Baby’s parents, and Mike Bishop is given nothing to do as Hotelier Max Kellerman. The book is so bad it makes everyone on stage look uncomfortable most of the time.
The set [Stephen Brimson Lewis] and lighting design [Tim Mitchell] are quite lovely, evoking the soft-focus reverie of middle-class indulgence with considerable restraint and economy. The video and projection design [Jon Driscoll] is less successful, although it does provide the most entertaining – if corniest – moment of the show, as the lovers practice their lifts in various locations around the resort.
It is a telling moment. Cheeky references to the film inject the stage business with some life, drawing directly on the audience’s presumably fond memories of the original. It is why lines such as “nobody puts baby in the corner” and “I carried a watermelon” are met with whoops of delight. The Vaseline-lens nostalgia of the original film has reached its endgame here, and the result is less sophisticated than a sing-a-long screening of the movie would be. It’s also way more expensive.