'Remember – this is the summer of 1963,' intones the voiceover guy as the lights dim. That means rock 'n' roll, a holiday resort in the Catskills, an unexpected nod to the civil rights movement and a teenage girl called Baby who just wants to change the world. Welcome to Dirty Dancing: The Musical. Like the film, but with more politics and singing.
The familiar narrative of teen sexual awakening remains intact – Baby is the girl who wants to join the Peace Corps and doesn’t think she’ll ever be able to find a guy as swell as her dad. That is until she meets dancing bad boy Johnny, helps wrong-side-of-the-tracks Penny get a back alley abortion and learns to heal the world through the power of the mambo.
She carries a watermelon (you can also buy the t-shirt) – and the audience goes crazy. They also lose it for immortal lines like ‘no-one puts Baby in the corner,’ and have a bit of a freak out when Baby gets her top off (bra still on of course), which is unexpected given the heavy female presence in the auditorium. Wolf whistles and whoops abound whenever it gets a bit sexy. The finale sees Johnny (played here by Paul-Michael Jones) bravely climbing through the audience to make his daring return for the last dance of the season – the actor is truly taking his life in his hands, surrounded by the baying hordes of one thousand over-excited hen dos.
The cast face quite a challenge playing roles so strongly identified with their movie counterparts – a whisper of ‘He’s no Patrick Swayze’ ripples around the room as Johnny makes his first appearance. He does a decent job of winning over the crowd, despite an occasional lapse of accent, dazzling them with his toplessness. Baby is played by Jill Winternitz, who brings an element of physical comedy to the role, lending the character some much-needed warmth. The dancing is, as you would expect, highly accomplished, and the staging pleasantly pared down, formed mainly from projections (used to odd effect in the learning-jumps-in-the-river scene) and a revolving floor.
The beginning of the second act drags a little – some additional scenes developing Baby’s parents’ characters seem extraneous and a sudden engagement with the civil rights movement and Dr King is simply incongruous. There’s no losing this audience though – rapturous applause greets every speech, dance and song. It’s almost as if they were having the time of their lives.