MUSICAL REVIEW: Dirty Dancing

Dirty Dancing (Melbourne, 2015)

If you’re looking for a solid dance musical (with more dance, less singing), then look no further. Baz Luhrmann, eat your heart out, because Dirty Dancing outclasses your Strictly Ballroom on every level.

Not a baby anymore!
Not a baby anymore! Photo credit: Jeff Busby

Musical lovers should be aware that Dirty Dancing is light on musical numbers in the typical sense. While there are many well-loved songs throughout the show, these are mostly original recordings, and the few instances of live singing are done by just a few cast members (and not the leads). Once you cast this expectation aside, this show is a superb live theatre experience. The dancing is pure sex, and not just metaphorically. If the title didn’t already give it away, this isn’t really appropriate for kids given the blatant horniness of half of the characters, a couple of sex scenes, and a key plot point concerning abortion. They never mention the word though, so I suppose you could get away with it. But you have been warned.

Kurt Phelan, Kirby Burgess & Nadia Coote (Sydney production). Photo credit: Jeff Busby
Kurt Phelan, Kirby Burgess & Nadia Coote (Sydney production). Photo credit: Jeff Busby

For those who haven’t grown up with the film already etched in their hearts, Dirty Dancing takes place in the summer of 1963 against the backdrop of the American civil rights movement. Baby (played here by Kirby Burgess), dreams of joining the Peace Corps. She spends the summer at popular holiday resort, Kellerman’s, with her parents (Adam Murphy and Penny Martin) and sister, Lisa (Teagan Wouters). While here she is introduced to the exciting world of the resort dancers, and is drawn to dance instructor, Johnny (Kurt Phelan). When Johnny’s partner Penny (Maddie Peat) is unable to perform with him at an important event, Baby volunteers to learn the steps in her place. And so begins a whirlwind romance replete with mirrors, crop-tops, sex, and of course THAT LIFT.

Spoiler alert. They don't stuff it up.
Spoiler alert. They don’t stuff it up. Photo credit: Jake Nowakowski

The best way to explain the choreography is simply: HOT DAMN. I didn’t even know where to look in the group numbers, though the ensemble isn’t too big which works well. In the intimate scenes between Baby and Johnny, the sexual tension is palpable, and though the potential is there for these scenes to be incredibly corny, they successfully avoid this trap. As for the finale, it’s what we’ve been waiting for the whole show, and it certainly does not disappoint. NOBODY PUTS BABY IN A CORNER. AMIRIGHT?

You tell 'em Johnny. Photo credit: Jeff Busby
Kurt Phelan, Adam Murphy, Penny Martin & Kirby Burgess. Photo credit: Jeff Busby

Thank god John Frost had the good sense not to go for stunt casting in the lead roles. He has chosen experienced triple threats who have previously never had the chance to shine in lead roles, with the exception of those which they have understudied. It’s a shame that Baby doesn’t sing in this, because Kirby Burgess doesn’t get the opportunity to show off her killer vocals. Nevertheless she has a commanding stage presence, injecting humour and sweetness into a role which could be annoying were it not cast right (I personally can’t stand Jennifer Grey in the film). Kurt Phelan is similarly dazzling. As Johnny he oozes cool whilst retaining a vulnerable charm, and his moves are hot to trot.

Hot stuff. Photo credit: Jake Nowakowski
Hot stuff. Photo credit: Jake Nowakowski

Of course, it wouldn’t be a John Frost production without a bit of stunt casting. Classical singer, Mark Vincent of television’s Australia’s Got Talent, receives third billing in his musical theatre debut, which is clearly a money-making ploy because his part as Billy Kostecki isn’t that big. Together with Anna Freeland and Eric Rasmussen, he is utilised as a live singer, and he does impress with his powerful voice. But he only sings about three songs, and features less than Anna Freeland who barely gets a mention in the program. Those who buy tickets purely for Vincent will be impressed, but also likely disappointed at the limited opportunities to hear him sing.

Kirby Burgess & Mark Vincent
Kirby Burgess & Mark Vincent

As Penny, Maddie Peat of television’s So You Think You Can Dance amazes with her dancing abilities. She has legs that go on forever, and practically kicks herself in the head time and time again, making me long for even a semblance of her flexibility. While not a particularly strong actress, she is really there to dance, and dance she freakin’ well does. Other shout-outs go to Teagan Wouters as the annoying-in-an-endearing way, Lisa, and Adam Murphy as Baby’s father, Jake. He is beautiful.

WTAF. Photo credit: Jim Lee
Maddie Peat & Kurt Phelan: WTAF. Photo credit: Jim Lee

Lovers of the film should be satisfied with the translation to the stage. Though 40% of the material is new, with a reported 20 extra scenes and 25 extra songs, all the classic scenes from the movie remain. The characters are afforded some extra depth (Baby’s father, especially), and the civil rights backdrop is ever present. All the hits from the soundtrack remain, with many more hits of the sixties added. There isn’t much in the way of sets, but there is some clever use of digital projections. There’s also an invisible car.

These arms of mine. Photo credit: Jeff Busby
These arms of mine. Photo credit: Jeff Busby

I wasn’t sold in the first few minutes of this show. The holiday resort setting seemed like it was going to be rather blah, and I feared this wasn’t going to match the heights of other shows, namely because there are no big musical numbers with belts to drive you wild. But give me a hot guy in leather, some sexy moves, and some rockin’ hits, and you’ve got me. You damn well might have the time of your life at this one.

4.5 stars

Dirty Dancing is playing at Her Majesty’s Theatre until Sunday, before continuing its national tour in Brisbane, Perth, and Adelaide.

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