FringeReview UK 2018
Federico Bellone’s direction is given to resident director Russ Spencer. Roberto Commotti’s set reinforces storytelling and give us the film’s atmosphere transformed into a live show, working with Valerio Tiberi’s lighting. Armando Vertullo’s sound is punchy enough. Conrad Helfrich’s music supervision extends to three band members. Kieran Kuypers, Ben Mabberley and Miles Russell provide viscerally live brass and keys. Gillian Bruce’s choreography is consummate. Jennifer Irwin provides vivid costumes.
The shock success of Eleanor Bergstein’s 1987 film Dirty Dancing is repeated here in a production that thrills from its wonderful set to – inevitably – its dancing. And singers too. Karl Sydow and Joy Entertainment have developed an originally modest offering of a coming-of-seventeen dance film set in 1963 into a starry spectacle that’s tight, exciting and fast-paced with wondrous set dissolves to go with fleet acting and… that lift. Till September 29th.
Federico Bellone’s direction is given to resident director Russ Spencer and it’s a privilege after so many Spartan sets and black-floored musicals on the cheap to report the qualities of Roberto Commotti’s set which do so much to reinforce the storytelling and give us the film’s atmosphere transformed into a live show, working seamlessly with Valerio Tiberi’s lighting.
If you don’t know the film there’s very little you’ll miss, though there’s one point underwritten. And there’s some additional scenes. Finally, there’s a piece of dialogue at the end clipped from the film’s final cut that’s rightly restored here. Armando Vertullo’s sound is punchy enough though for the Theatre Royal so overwhelming it shudders up your legs.
Conrad Helfrich’s music supervision extends to three band members recessed when the Kellerman’s hotel interior lies exposed. Kieran Kuypers, Ben Mabberley and Miles Russell provide viscerally live brass and keys, sounding both intimate and big-band in a barline.
Gillian Bruce’s choreography is consummate though star dancer Simone Covele’s Penny Johnson dances so dirtily in her first number you wonder that anyone could be shocked later on. Bruce is particularly good at suggesting Baby’s staging-posts to competent then thrilling dancer; everything the core couples or ensemble take onto the stage is high-energy, high-voltage sexiness. Jennifer Irwin provides vivid costumes particularly for women, flame orange, fuschia pink, intense blues and emeralds, and for Johnny a cutaway ripple-maxing black shirt.
Visually it’s a joy too. The Kellerman hotel is solidly realized and on a revolve spins to an interior dance space. Stage right and left there’s two sets of shrub-environed dwellings: the professional dancers’ dive up a flight of steps – seen later in scene changes with a Müller ad occluding part of the central panel. And stage left there’s a holiday chalet where the Houseman family disappear. It’s a beautifully-tooled affair, but that’s before the video (also Bellone) projects everything from pelting rain through deep forest with that log rolling two dancers, and finally a lake where again our central couple cavort practising their lifts. There’s even car headlamps at one point.
After a Baby boom – Kira Malou’s Baby Houseman seems suddenly tripled behind the gauze as singer Elizabeth (Sian Gentle-Green) bursts forth with another dancer – we’re at Kellerman’s. By 1963 the prospect of late teens holidaying with parents is, as Jack McKenzie’s Max Kellerman notes, dying on its feet.
Time for new feet and Michael O’Reilly’s Johnny Castle, leader of the professional dance pack who romance the married women like studs and teach teen girls to dance. They’re prey for the Harvard-vacationing waiters like Tom Bowen’s Robbie, medical student predating on Penny, getting her into trouble and cruelly discarding her. Despite Kellerman’s lip-service to Martin Luther King and Civil Rights (we get an audio clip) sending grandson Neil (Greg Fossard) to Alabama, it’s clear the racial and class bars are hidden. Colin Charles’ Tito Suarez is a fresh figure, Kellerman’s Number Two, sceptical of college kids going to Alabama and finally admonishing Castle for not trying hard enough as a dancer. It’s a courageous attempt to update what thirty years later might seem a platitudinous nod, though in truth an optimistic one.
Into this melee of change come the Houseman’s, Baby, her sister goofy supremo Lisa (Lizzie Ottley) and parents Lyndon Edwards’ Jake, an MD who thinks Robbie’s a nice kid, and Lori Haley Fox’s Marjorie. This production allows a little more fleshing out, so Ottley can show off an embarrassingly silly shimmy and sharply off-key voice (perfectly in tune), and more interplay between the parents – Fox comes over as more worldly and sympathetic, which doesn’t happen till the final final frames. And Edwards is challenged more by her too in his gruff but arm avuncularity alternating with pained silences. Indeed one additional sequence ahs the grateful Penny offer dance lessons to the Housemans and reveal her secret to Marjorie. Not in the film they work perfectly here.
All the big lines zing through and the audience love ‘I carried a watermelon’ as Baby’s introduced via Johnny’s brother Alex Wheeler’s Billy Kosteci (Castle’s a stage name) to the denizens of secret dirty dancing, and the narrative millions know unravels. Wheeler with Gentle-Green is the superlative singer of the evening too. Penny’s pregnant though this isn’t flagged up properly and a newcomer might wonder why Baby’s off to baby-father refusnik Robbie: he recommends the quasi-fascist übermensch-extolling The Fountainhead as a good read. It’s now a touchstone of the alt-right. Less over here know of Ayn Rand, preacher of the creative few being held back by the drossy 99% of humanity, much beloved of Osborne, Cameron and Republicans. But for Americans it tells us Robbie’s the opposite of those who work in the Peace Corps (like the reluctant Neil).
We’ve seen Covete dance by now and she’s sensational, rippling and curving like a kind of silken S, sexy and striking. O’Reilly has to be as good and to the excitement of many he strips blissfully well. Laughter and wolf-whistles almost drown the show when more than his six-pack bursts forth, He’s a tremendous dancer, chiselled-looking, an immaculate mover with enormous energy and a grace to manage small gestures. He can act too, though his voice can bass-baritone to Patrick Swayze levels a little intensely for his miked-up voice.
He partners Covete like a dream, and the superbly hesitant wrong-footing Malou, well like a different kind of dream. Their gradual sizzle as they practice the dance to take over from a indisposed Penny at another hotel, is one of the highlights – and all the videos of thunderstorms, logs, forest and deep lakes fly by in a feast of video projections. We cut with lighting and different costumes through Baby’s ascent into competent then good dancer. Cometh the hour she’s excellent but doesn’t of course manage that lift; yet.
The plot whereby Dr Houseman has saved Penny but thinks Johnny’s responsible, and Johnny being blamed by a slighted woman (whose husband offered him money to sleep with her) is worked through deftly. The Pressmans Ashley Rumble and Amelia Armstrong aren’t expanded on here and Armstrong’s exit isn’t quite the flounce writer Bergstein herself made of her own cameo part, though she moves slinkily and you wish she could be used more. Mark Faith’s Mr Schumacher is given a solo dancing comedy spot though, and a nifty role in another kind of lift altogether, out of pockets; neatly signposted.
The great love scene closing Act One is another of Bruce’s triumphs. Naturally the appalling Kellermans closing ceremony with its stiffs and stuffed shirts giving way to an explosion of sex is more viscerally handled in a small space than even the film.
The climax and how it’s handled you’ll have to see. But for those wondering if this was just a holiday romance will find answers in that restoration of dialogue. It’s a fitting heart-warming climax to a dream of production. And a surprise to those who think they know the film.