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Dirty Dancing at the Grand Canal Theatre (Review)

It’s hard to fault Dirty Dancing Live, the latest in a long line of screen-to-stage translations of popular works. It’s not exactly bold, or challenging, or excessively original – but the stage show has a sense of style that fits the material, and an ensemble who can really move. Between that and a handsome leading man in Paul-Michael Jones, it should have everything necessary to satisfy the target audience – even if it won’t really convert to many skeptics.

Try to catch him dancin' dirty...

I’m going to be honest here. I never got Dirty Dancing. It’s a bit strange, because I am quite fond of other fairly subversive musical films like Grease or The Rocky Horror Picture Show. For some reason, the story of Johnny and Baby never really appealed to me, never really engaged with me, never really made me give a damn about any of the things happening to give the Houseman family the worst holiday ever.

Seeing the stage show, I think the reason is much more obvious. To be quite frank, Johnny Castle is a bit of a dick. He’s not a charming feckless rogue with any measure of complexity, instead he’s prejudiced and selfish sexual predator with a victim complex. It took Patrick Swayze’s somewhat underrated charm to conceal those more disturbing aspects of the character, and the stage adaptation suffers because while Paul-Michael Jones looks handsome and has all the right moves, he’s not Patrick Swayze.

Ain't that a kick in the head?

There’s something predatory about the way that Johnny “romances” young Baby. This is, after all, a man used to taking room keys from female guests and then playing up his victim complex and inspiring pity by claiming he was “used” by them. Never mind the fact that nobody forced him, and the resort expressly forbids it, he is clearly the victim here – and it doesn’t say anything about him, but instead reflects badly on all those rich people willing to take advantage. Johnny doesn’t care about anything except himself. When the college-educated Neil Kellerman thinks of visiting the South to support Civil Rights, he is treated like an ignorant fool for giving a damn – and allowing himself to be talked out of it with the threat of death, the show tries to have it both ways be presenting him as “a quitter.” Hey, at least Johnny never cared. And that’s totally cool.

In fairness, the stage show is quite stylishly produced. The sets are fabulous, the music numbers are well choreographed and the soundtrack is provided by a live band playing at the back of the stage. The action is staged wonderfully, making use of hydraulics to allow characters and objects to flow and rotate, giving the scene transitions a sense of elegance. It helps that a wonderful troupe of supporting performers help with scene transitions, dancing like it’s going out of style, and reminding the men in the audience that the summer of ’63 meant hotpants and miniskirts.

Don't you want to dance with somebody?

Whatever deficiencies Paul-Michael Jones might have as an actor, he looks good and he can dance. That’s qualification enough. Indeed, the stage show feels like pantomime, reducing the plot and themes to their most basic of forms, concentrating the sense of class resentment and being sure to hit those key moments. I’ve Had the Time of My Life is there, as is Hungry Eyes. There’s the bedroom scene, the grand finale (complete with the sound of Johnny’s motorbike).

The audience loved it. Dirty Dancing has been described as Star Wars for girls”, and who am I to complain about that? When the time came for Johnny to storm back into Baby’s life, the crowd literally went wild. The enthusiasm was palpable. The lady who had dragged me along may have been crying at one point. So I don’t think the show has to worry about failing to please their target demographic. However, I was a little disappointed that there wasn’t a bit more wit about it, no sense of humour to compliment the hollowing out of the tale, and not enough substance to really allow me to invest in it.

Still. I think I was in the minority that night.

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