The Christmas Show at the New Theatre in Oxford this year is not a traditional Pantomime, nor is it a show for the very young children in the family – it’s the live stage version of a film from 1987, Dirty Dancing.
Despite some of the flack that critics like to give this kind of material recycled from film to stage, I think it’s a really good night out for anyone who likes that kind of story or music. It’s entertaining. It’s true to the film without being slavish and it transfers the general ethos, the period style and the really good music into a live show.
It is the live-ness of the show that clearly justifies the exercise, otherwise I probably would go along with the philosophical concern that these days people are largely adapting tried and true film titles (Shrek, Top Hat, Singin’ in the Rain, Made in Dagenham spring easily to mind) to fill theatres and not taking many risks or coming up with original ideas. Even when a show that is originally from the stage, such as The Sound of Music, is revived, it is most often not so much re-imagined as cloned from the subsequent film.
That said, one has to accept the given; and within its limited ambitions, this Dirty Dancing production is particularly fine. If you love the film, there is a lot to get from seeing it restaged live. The choreography by Kate Champion is excellent, vibrant and quite memorable. The set is superbly evocative of the Catskills setting, is cleverly supple and pliable in its ability to shift from scene to scene. I feel, therefore, that Stephen Brimson Lewis needs a special mention for his set design as does the allied video and projection designer Jon Driscoll. The musical work of the orchestra under the direction of Conrad Helfrich is spot on and it is a good score.
For me, though, the real justification for going to the theatre and not simply re-running the original film on DVD, is to watch a new generation of very talented music theatre performers get a chance to show their abilities, especially the newer and younger performers. Roseanna Frascona is really touching as Baby and, though she also evokes memories of Jennifer Grey (and should be warned not to get a nose job like Grey because her face has real character and mobility as it is) because of the way she is wigged and costumed, she has a stylishness and appeal that is all her own. Her energy and stage charisma are powerful and clear. Also, Claire Rogers is a knockout as Penny Johnson; James Coombes is convincing as Baby’s father; and Colin Charles has some brilliant and memorable moments as Tito Suarez. Gareth Bailey, who plays Johnny Castle, interests me a lot because, unlike the other characters, he no one is trying to turn him into a clone for the original star of the film, Patrick Swayze. The reason, I suspect, is that they cannot. He is too much his own person in terms of body shape, physicality, look and dancing style.
And Gareth Bailey is a brilliant dancer. His American accent slips from time to time, his vocals are good his acting is appealing. But when he is dancing, he is a star! (Sort of like Esther Williams in a swimming pool! There is something about his movement that is uniquely his own and completely compelling.) Certainly he appealed to the Hen Night clubs that seemed to be dotted throughout the theatre the night I went. And when he took off his shirt or stripped down to his boxer shorts, well! Mayhem broke out! And, as in the film, the final number was superlative with Gareth Bailey and Roseanna Franscona, joined by the entire ensemble by the end, really bringing the evening to the kind of satisfying conclusion you can only get in live theatre.
If you haven’t seen the film, this is not a bad way to get to know the basic material. It’s Christmas, and this story is certainly as good a romantic feast as any of those gloopy TV movies that seem to be playing 3 or 4 times a day right now
If you have knowledge of the original film, you will enjoy what is new about the way it is sung and danced and acted in this version, but also not feel cheated of your memories.
The show is touring extensively throughout the UK for a lot of 2015. If it comes near you, do go if it appeals. You will not be disappointed. And I do wish that someone would now come up with some fresh material for people like Roseanna Frascona, Gareth Bailey, Claire Rogers and Colin Charles to originate because I am convinced that if good new material were given to themor tailored for them, they have the talent to become household names in no time.