[Image courtesy of Leeds Grand Theatre]
Friday 14th November 2014
Leeds Grand Theatre
I have to blink several times as Frances ‘Baby’ Houseman, stares wide eyed around (the staged set of) Kellerman’s Holiday Club. Roseanna Frascona who plays the leading part is the image of Jennifer Grey, a petite ball of energy with a shock of curls and well that nose; she emits more Jennifer Grey-ness than perhaps actual Jennifer Grey. Either way, for most of the audience, this likeness sets off the nostalgia trip perfectly, and scores a definite win for the casting team. Baby announces famously, that it is the summer of 1963 and I can feel the audience stir. The production carries on the dynasty of Johnny and Baby’s love story, and obviously by most fan’s standards, has big shoes to fill. The 1987 film itself became an unintentional classic when the tale of deliciously forbidden love was cut against the bubbling tensions of the sixties. Now, after being on stage since the Sydney premier in 2006, the show is still widely anticipated as a hit.
We are immediately thrust into the shining bright Americana of the sixties Holiday Camp. There is a wonderful high energy from the start, opening up the scene with candy coloured dancers swishing and twisting, and the bright grin of the holiday goers. What is fantastic however is the way that the performance incorporates the original film’s tongue-in-cheek tone towards the typically theatrical approach to public entertainment, this sense of irony cutting through the clean-cut facade of the theatrical performance, giving us access to the more humanistic side.
These more cinematic nuances feed right the way through the whole musical, owing to a script crafted by the original film writer Eleanor Bergstein who herself chose to adapt the story to the stage. Short scenes which switch up the scenery and setting allow the story some momentum and included smaller, more comical scenes purely for the enjoyment of spectacle. This cinematic feel is elaborated by the fantastic use of light and set design; the famous montage of Baby and Johnny relentlessly going through their mambo steps is achieved through clever lighting changes, indicating a progression of time that is often difficult to emulate on stage, acting as a subtle nod towards the revered film scene. Other techniques include the rotating stage which allows for the typically flat dimensions of the spectacle- versus- audience scenario to become far more accessible, the 360 degree access to the performance again emulating the intimate and extensive scope of a film camera.
Courtesy of Leeds Grand Theatre
This technique is utilised particularly well in the steamier bedroom scenes, although, perhaps this also owed significantly to the character of Johnny Castle who is played by Gareth Bailey. His snake-hip charm certainly seduces half the audience, the perfect counterpart to the naively bright-eyed Baby. His dancing is also extremely strong and fluid, his talent perhaps best displayed in scenes with his stunning and tragic dance partner Penny, played by Claire Rogers. Trained respectively at Italia Conti and The Royal Ballet School Bailey and Rogers exude talent and sex appeal, and are followed closely by the impressive dance ensemble. Choreographed by Kate Champion, the dancing explores the sugary/sexy binaries of the sixties, the classic watermelon scene in which Baby finds herself amidst the steamy after hours dancing is perhaps where this choreography really comes alive, and the tensions become more visceral and sizzling.
Of course, given such an iconic prestige, Johnny’s infamous line, ‘Nobody puts Baby in the corner’ and the sensational lift sequence has the audience whistling and clutching at their hot collars, reminding us that we are in fact in the theatre and are not merely a passive audience in front of a screen. What Dirty Dancing achieves on stage is this sense of vitality and interaction with the story; the ability to share the vibrancy of music and dancing enhances what is already a cherished classic.
For more about the show visit the Dirty Dancing website at www.dirtydancingontour.com