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Still having the time of our lives at Dirty Dancing

PUBLISHED: 09:09 24 August 2012

Dirty Dancing

Dirty Dancing

©ALASTAIR MUIR CONTACT alastair@alastairmuir.com

Damned by critics both on film and on stage but audiences just don't seem to care. DAVID HENSHALL discovers that hit show Dirty Dancing delivers audiences a fun night out.

It’s one of those musicals that has defied the critics in both its movie and stage forms to become something of a phenomenon.

Dirty Dancing is carried inexorably along by a public that can’t get enough of it and is putting vast sums of money in the pockets of those who originally spotted its potential.

Interestingly, the film had something of a struggle to get made in the first place and although it has achieved acclaim as a stage show in several capitals across the globe, and toured the big cities of the US with success, it has never found a home on Broadway.

In spite of mixed reviews it ran for five years in the West End. When it opened in 2006, Dirty Dancing attracted the highest pre-sell of tickets in London history, earning £6 million. And, by March last year, well over a million people had seen it at the Aldwych Theatre.

Not all the London critics were less than enchanted by the show. The Observer declared it “the biggest live theatre sensation of all time,” and a wider section of people can test this opinion shortly because the show is now out on tour and is at Norwich Theatre Royal for a three-week late-summer run starting next week.

With its iconic songs, some classic lines and featuring, as in the movie, a giant melon, Dirty Dancing is set in the summer of 1963 as 17-year-old Francis “Baby” Houseman, daughter of an affluent doctor and with her educational future all mapped out, gets to see how the other half lives. And likes it.

On holiday with her family in the Catskill Mountains of New York state and bored with the normal activities of the posh resort, she goes exploring and stumbles on a secret all-night dance party in the staff quarters of the hotel. She’s delighted with what she sees – and especially with the look of the resort’s dance instructor, Johnny Castle.

Baby is intrigued by the sexy dancing and, after receiving an impromptu lesson from Johnny, the two are thrown together and get caught up in series of dramatic events, some breathtaking spinning and stomping with all sorts of consequences.

The show features a lot of hit numbers which give it tremendous drive, like Hungry Eyes and Do You Love Me? Chart-topper I’ve Had The Time Of My Life won both the Golden Globe and the Oscar for Best Original Song for the film – and a Grammy for best duet.

Emily Holt is playing Baby. She has a strong theatrical pedigree, including Cabaret in the West End, the UK tour of Grease, The Pillars of Earth for Channel 4 and the movie The Boat That Rocked.

Johnny is played by Paul-Michael Jones, who represented Britain at Latin American and ballroom dance in the world championships in Singapore and who had a role in Mamma Mia in the West End. He has also appeared in various tours of Never Forget, Fame and We Will Rock You.

To get the inevitable pun out of the way nice and quickly, Paul-Michael is having the time of his life. It might be a cheesy thing to say, but hearing him talk about his role as bad boy dance instructor, it’s clear he’s in his element.

He explains, he jumped at the chance to play the role, not least because Patrick Swayze, the original Johnny Castle, is one of his heroes.

As a young dancer growing up in Rochdale, Swayze was a role model for him. His parents run a dance school, and at the age of 11 he took up Latin and ballroom dancing.

“Dirty Dancing was a great film for me to watch – seeing Patrick Swayze dancing and making it cool,” he says. “I became a fan pretty quickly.”

Paul-Michael move from dancing into theatre came at the age of 19 when he moved to London to study at Laine Theatre Arts. When it came to preparing for Dirty Dancing, he was keen to put his own stamp on the part.

“I watched the film and studied the way Patrick Swayze did it. But for the audition and the rehearsal process I tried to forget everything and tried to put more of me in to it. I didn’t want to do an exact copy,” he says.

Written in 1985, the original screenplay by Eleanor Bergstein was part-based on her own younger life. The daughter of a New York doctor, she spent summers in the Catskills with her family, took part in “dirty dancing” competitions and was herself called Baby as a girl. She had earlier written the screenplay for the Michael Douglas film It’s My Turn and was dismayed when the producers cut an erotic dance scene from the script. So she conceived the idea for Dirty Dancing and, incorporating yarns from a dance instructor she met while researching the movie, she sold the outline to MGM.

By the time she had finished the script, however, there had been management changes at MGM, where it was put on the back burner. Bergstein then shopped the idea around other studios and was repeatedly rejected until eventually she got to Vestron, a leading home video distribution company, and they liked it. It was to become Vestron’s first feature film production and it was budgeted at the low figure of $5 million when the average movie cost at the time was $12 million.

The critics were not keen on the Dirty Dancing movie but the public loved it and it was much the same when it was adapted for the stage in Australia in 2004. It was written, once again, by Eleanor Bergstein and had the same songs as the film, with a few extra scenes. It was a sell-out in Sydney and the reception has been the same wherever the show has travelled.

Paul-Michael says the audiences, particularly the girls, are highly excitable and get a bit carried away. “You get all sorts of things shouted. It’s just that sort of atmosphere, with lots of hen parties. It’s a lot of fun and we really feed off the vibe. It makes for a better show but you can’t react to it. Sometimes it’s hard not to smile or start laughing.”

There are the fantastic dance numbers, including the show-stopping finale, in which Johnny and Baby perform a certain move called The Lift. Jill needs to have a head for heights and nerves of steel — Paul-Michael is tall.

“With my arms up, she’s about eight feet up in the air,” he laughs.

And there is no room for error. “It’s scary – it’s quite a tricky move,” he says. “If you think about it, in the film they would have done it as many times as they wanted. On stage it has to be spot-on.”

It must be difficult following in the footsteps of Swayze, whose performance in the movie made him a global superstar. But Jones is determined to put his own spin on the part, although he says the show is very faithful to the film.

“The producers have purposely tried to make it as close as possible to the movie. As for Swayze himself, I didn’t deliberately copy him while I was rehearsing but at the same time I didn’t try to waver too far away from him because that’s what the audience wants to see.”

■ Dirty Dancing, Norwich Theatre Royal, August 28-September 15, £43.50-£6.50, 01603 630000, www.theatreroyalnorwich.co.uk www.dirtydancingontour.co.uk

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