“It was 1963, when everybody called me Baby and it didn’t occur to me to mind,” says Frances “Baby” Houseman as the auditorium lights go down and the curtain goes up on Dirty Dancing at Milton Keynes Theatre.
Brought to the stage and now touring after a fabulously successful run at the Aldwych Theatre in London’s West End, the blockbuster 1987 dance film is a firm favourite among women of all ages.
Tickets to this coveted show were the perfect birthday treat. When my mum and I queued to enter the auditorium, it was clear that the audience was largely made up of groups of eager women. These same women would later squeal with excitement when the male lead uttered that immortal line: “Nobody puts Baby in the corner”.
The story follows Dr Jake Houseman, his wife Marjorie and their daughters Lisa and Frances (“Baby”) while they stay at Kellerman’s upmarket resort. This fictional holiday destination is based on the real-life Grossinger’s Catskills Hotel, in upstate New York, where wealthy Jewish families holidayed during the 1960s.
Baby remembers: “That was before President Kennedy got shot, before the Beatles came, when I couldn’t wait to join the Peace Corps and I thought I’d never find a guy as great as my dad.”
Vacation activities are captured beautifully by the Ensemble cast as they recreate scenes depicting lavish dinners, embarrassing group dance lessons and plenty of fun and frolics in the guise of sack races, leap frog competitions and camp-fire sing-along sessions.
“Baby” as she is endearingly known (by her doting father, but also by all those she is introduced to) is a sweet and naive seventeen-year-old. Keen to change the world by joining the Peace Corps, she opens her heart to those in trouble and shuns the typical stereotypes for girls her age. After swiftly side-stepping the advances of the rather dowdy and smarmy – but still, admittedly, entertaining – Neil Kellerman (grandson to hotel owner Max Kellerman and current trainee manager) Baby finds herself falling in love with rough and ready dance instructor Johnny Castle.
One evening she stumbles upon a club in the staff quarters. Here, rebellious “dirty dancing” is all the rage. In an instant, Baby has her eyes opened to a new type of movement. This sexy style is raunchy, up-close-and-personal and accompanied by pulsing Latin music and strong rhythms.
When she discovers that working class Johnny’s dance partner, Penny, is in trouble, Baby steps up to the mark. Long-limbed Penny (played by the stunning Charlotte Gooch) is pregnant by Robbie, one of the rich college boys on the hotel’s staff – who now has his eye on Lisa Houseman. Baby helps Penny by securing the money needed for an illegal abortion. However, her efforts mean she ends up having to take private dance lessons with Johnny in order to take Penny’s place in an upcoming dance performance.
Emily Holt plays “Baby” and is utterly convincing in the role. Bad boy Johnny Castle (immortalised by Patrick Swayze in the blockbuster film) is played by former champion Latin American and ballroom dancer, Paul-Michael Jones, who certainly has the necessary dance skills.
However, together, Holt and Jones do not really have the chemistry we expect from these two characters. It is not clear whether this is because so much was packed into the musical or whether the two just didn’t quite have “it” when together. The choreographed movement was enough to create the scenes but some of the acting felt forced and unnatural.
While Jones struts his stuff and gyrates his hips to perfection I must admit to some bias as the cover for Johnny – and a key player in the Ensemble cast – is a home-grown talent that I grew up watching perform. Tim Hodges trained with dance teachers in the new city and returns with Dirty Dancing as part of the fleet-footed and finely-tuned Ensemble. He partnered Charlotte Gooch’s Penny with ease before effortlessly throwing the other female dancers into the air during partner changes.
The good news for fans is that this show is completely faithful to the Dirty Dancing film, probably because both the film and this stage production are written by author Eleanor Bergstein. Everything is included in the stage show in a fast-moving flurry. Scenes occur simultaneously to keep the action moving and the scenery is used sparingly.
Design by Jon Driscoll sees the use of video and projection exploited to recreate the most memorable moments from the screen. I had wondered how the staging would cope with the log and water scenes but some clever computer graphics and a bit of cunning choreography brought them to life.
Choreographer Craig Wilson has created some stunning Latin numbers for Dirty Dancing the musical. The ‘Mambo Magic’ section in particular is pure glittering dance. Meanwhile, musical director Tom Deering packs in a whole jukebox of 1960s tracks, performed by the brilliant band. Pleasingly, rather than being hidden away in the pit, the band is made a true feature of, with the musicians placed up above the stage. From their elevated position, they play all the hit songs from the movie soundtrack – including ‘Hungry Eyes’, ‘Hey Baby’, ‘Do You Love Me?’ and (obviously!) the unforgettable ‘Time Of My Life’.
That iconic dance right at the end of the film is probably the main reason why women descend in their droves to see this show. Fortunately, the final scene did not disappoint – Johnny crashes through the main auditorium (within touching distance of audience members) to take his rightful place next to Baby.
You’ll have “the time of your life”!
*Photography courtesy of Milton Keynes Theatre.
Dirty Dancing continues at Milton Keynes Theatre until Saturday 26 May 2012.
Update 13 February 2014: Read my feature on the Dirty Dancing press launch, Milton Keynes, February 2014
Update 25 October 2014: Read my review of Dirty Dancing at Milton Keynes Theatre, October 2014.
Georgina Butler is an editor, a dance writer and a ballet teacher.