The revamped version of the timeless classic did a brief stint at the Grand Theatre at the end of February. Being a colossal fan of the iconic movie, I couldn’t resist popping down to check out what the latest production had to offer. It also got me thinking about how the story – now over 30 years old – has stood the test of time and now holds a special place in the hearts of a whole new generation.
The lights are dim onstage, but it’s easy to make out Baby, perched beside an overflowing suitcase and writing intently. After a moment, in a tone so soft, yet so full of longing, she sails into the opening notes of ‘This Magic Moment’. All the while, couples silhouetted through a curtain, dance behind her. Such is the opening to Dirty Dancing – The Classic Story on Stage.
There’s a lot of things that Dirty Dancing – the story of a young girl’s holiday romance with a dancing instructor – could have been. It needn’t have been more than a feel-good summer film – full of sixties nostalgia, attractive actors and a catchy soundtrack. And of course these elements are present, but at the same time, rather unexpectedly, Dirty Dancing also tackles a number of challenging issues. A crucial element of Baby’s storyline that is often overlooked is her moral dilemma; her struggle with the realisation that the world isn’t as black and white as she had once anticipated. Moreover, upon the film’s 1987 release, critics commended it for its progressive stance on abortion. Nestled amongst the step-ball-changes and campfire songs is a sincere message about the loss of innocence and standing up for what you believe in.
What I found most impressive about the stage production was its immersivity. When the holidaymakers partook in a dance class or caught an evening show, the audience were right there along with them in the crowd. We were made to feel less like observers of a scene, and more so like we were a part of the experience. In a theatre, it can be difficult to erase the invisible barrier that exists between the performers and their audience. The fact that Dirty Dancing manages to achieve a sense of intimacy in such a large-scale production is commendable.
The acting, albeit as cheesy as one would expect from an eighties musical, was assuredly convincing. Kira Malou’s Baby is adorably naive, whilst Michael O’Reilly fits into the role of Johnny like a pair of old shoes. Special mentions go to Simone Covele, who played Penny – whose dancing abilities were utterly mesmerising – and Alex Wheeler, who played Billy. What I particularly enjoyed about the stage adaptation is that characters who didn’t necessarily get an abundance of screen time in the film have since been fleshed out a little. So, I was pleasantly surprised when Wheeler performed ‘In the Still of the Night’ by himself, a gorgeous ballad that (much like Billy) did not receive enough attention originally. The backstory of Jake and Marjorie Houseman’s relationship was also a welcome addition.
The atmosphere of the show was equally incredible. It was fun to be a part of a crowd where everyone was singing along, and you could really tell that the actors had a genuinely great time performing. The iconic closing number ‘I’ve Had the Time of my Life’, featuring the entire cast, was particularly spectacular to watch. As we made our way out of the theatre after the final curtain, it was clear that this was a performance that no one would be forgetting for quite some time.
There’s a moment in the theatre which struck me as particularly memorable, as Baby and Johnny dance together for the first time; he spins her and she twirls awkwardly, then passionately, and as the seconds draw on you wonder perhaps if they’ll just leave her there – immortalised in the feeling of belonging. But you know the story, you know Baby, and of course her step falters, and in a flawless transition suddenly it’s daytime and she’s on the lawn playing Simon Says again. The sun is hot on her back and the night before feels like a dream she once had.
There’s a reason that, 32 years after the film was released in cinemas, the story of Dirty Dancing lives on. As well as simply being bloody good, the themes it embraces are those which are still applicable to the current moment, and will be for generations to come. I’m grateful that the new production is striving to keep it relevant.
by Kathryn Hayne