Dirty Dancing

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Li Meng de Bakker talks to the cast and crew of the most uplifting musical to arrive this summer.


The tight clothes, the summer romance and that famous sky-high lift… Dirty Dancing was the unexpected 1987 blockbuster that stole the hearts of an entire generation (of girls anyway). And, it is that same story – since turned into a record-breaking musical – which has had audiences coming back for more, decades later.

Set in 1963, Dirty Dancing is the coming of age tale of Francis ‘Baby’ Houseman, a young girl from a wealthy New York family that goes on holiday at an exclusive local resort – Kellerman’s. There, she meets the incredibly hunky and frequently topless Johnny Castle, a blue-collar dance instructor who works at the resort. When Johnny’s dance partner, Penny, falls on hard times, Baby volunteers to help out. Between learning Penny’s routine, practicing alone with Johnny in precariously romantic locations and tiptoeing between her upper-class milieu and the exciting world of ‘dirty’ dancing, Baby and Johnny fall in love.

Tensions build, salsas are swayed and the plot twists and turns before reaching its happy conclusion in Baby and Johnny’s final dance, to the tune of (I’ve Had) The Time of My Life. This scene – easily the most iconic, tallying an incredible 141 million views on a single YouTube link – secured the story in the hearts of so many for nearly 30 years now and counting.

Recognising the affection fans felt for those memorable onscreen moments, the musical adaptation of Dirty Dancing, which arrives at the Hong Kong Cultural Centre this week, took an ‘if it’s not broke, don’t fix it’ approach with regards to the plot. “The film and the stage production follow the same story and script – it’s almost identical,” says Gareth Bailey, who plays Johnny. But there is one key difference, he maintains: “There’s a huge difference between the film and the stage production, and that’s that the stage production is live. Anything that’s live has an inherent energy.”

Indeed, the live production, which will tour Singapore and Manila after Hong Kong, offers audiences dance and music sequences that go beyond the experience of the film. “Dancing is even better in the musical than it is in the film because it’s live and you really see everybody on the dance floor,” says Mila De Biaggi, who plays Penny. Unlike other musicals, where dance sequences are often done in unison, the choreography in the stage production has an augmented realism. “None of us do the same thing,” she continues. “Each couple on stage has a unique routine, even though we are all performing simultaneously.”

While dance is the heartbeat of the production, it is also the music of Dirty Dancing that has been responsible for its enduring success. The film soundtrack, which went multi-platinum following its release, spawned a number of classic loves songs, including Eric Carmen’s Hungry Eyes. In an interesting twist of stage production, the production’s eight-piece band sits on an elevated platform above all the action on stage. The band, which serves as musical accompaniment throughout, also takes up the in-character roles of the resort band at Kellerman’s – which, of course, means full 1960’s costuming.

The decision to place the band, not in an orchestra pit as is custom, but above the stage, posed a problem for actors, who were unable to see the musical director for important cues. This was remedied, as director Alan Swerdlow reveals, ‘by having television monitors on the balcony rail and in the wings for the cast to look at’. Monitors, however, play a much larger role in the production on the whole; an impressive 200 LED panels and six projectors work in tandem to recreate the ambience of the different locations around Kellerman’s and are crucial in facilitating set changes. Since the script follows the film so closely, the stage technology allows scene cuts from the film, which would otherwise be impossible to replicate, to be translated effectively for the stage.

Altogether, it’s a recipe that has bewitched millions of theatregoers worldwide since the musical’s debut in 2004. But despite its ongoing, almost guaranteed popularity, the cast is careful not to take that kind of loyalty for granted. “Ninety per cent of people who come to see the stage production have seen the film, so there are high expectations,” says Bailey. “The audience knows the lines so well that you can feel the anticipation before key lines,” adds Briony Whitfield, who plays Baby.

It’s those moments, like Johnny’s “Nobody puts Baby in a corner,” that have, according to the cast, had one female fan return 17 times to see them perform. While it remains to be seen if any Hong Kong fans will top that number, Dirty Dancing is set to ‘lift’ them up, all the same.

Dirty Dancing is at Cultural Centre’s Grand Theatre, Apr 19-May 12. Tickets: 2734 9009; urbtix.hk.
 

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