Hippodrome, Birmingham, Wednesday 1st August, 2012
I begin with a confession: I have never seen the film. Somehow I have managed to escape it, although, of course, I am aware of the hit song and the most famous line about the baby in the corner, and so on. I thought it would be interesting to come to this story fresh and learn what’s what.
What I got was a different kind of theatre-going experience – and not one I care to repeat.
If you’ve been to a Sound of Music sing-a-long you’ll have some idea. Everyone in the audience (of mainly women) knew the film inside out. It seems the entire raison d’etre of this production is to recreate as much of the film as is theatrically possible, and dramaturgy be damned.
It took a while for me, a novice, to work out who the characters are. They come and go so quickly, exchanging one or two lines of dialogue, and then are gone. In film, you can do this and dialogue can afford to be economical, but on stage you need to focus differently and dialogue has to work harder.
The ‘plot’ concerns a young woman called Baby (for reasons I didn’t catch) recalling the eventful summer of 1963 when she and her family visited a holiday camp, a kind of Butlins for rich people. Along the way, we catch glimpses of the wider world. Martin Luther King is on the radio, there is news of civil rights marches in Atlanta… but these things are not our concern. Instead we follow Baby as she explores the wrong side of the tracks – she begins to mingle with the poor folk (the staff) even though it is Verboten. Her introduction to ‘these people’ comes from offering to help one of them carry fat, phallic watermelons into his quarters. Forbidden fruit, you see. A nerd of a suitor later offers her a pathetic gherkin, which she scorns. She has seen juicier stuff.
Inside, she meets Johnny Castle –not a fortress made of condoms, alas – but a leather-jacketed dancing instructor. On his first entrance, the audience erupted into rapture – applauding and cheering the costume. Johnny’s friends are having a bit of a party. They dance erotically in direct contrast to the formalised and wholesome, strictly ballroom dancing the rich folks pay them for. This orgy is what the show is apparently named for – with this ‘dirty’ dancing as a metaphor for sexual activity.
Baby is a bit of a do-gooder with ambition to join the Peace Corps. When one of the erotic dancers, Penny, is knocked up by a waiter, Baby acquires the $250 necessary for an illegal abortion without compunction. There is some irony in having a character called Baby facilitating an abortion but no one seems to notice. The abortion goes awry so Baby enlists her dad, a convenient doctor, to put Penny to rights. All of this means Penny cannot dance at some ‘important’ gig. Baby steps into the breach. She has a week to learn the mambo. Cue a montage of Baby and Johnny balancing on a huge log and falling over in a projected image of a lake.
The first half culminates in the gig. Baby performs well but she can’t bring herself to do ‘the lift’. Such an overt display of her sexuality is too much. Only at the end, when she has revealed her secret horizontal dancing sessions with Johnny, has she the confidence to throw herself at him on the dance floor and be held aloft, almost as free as a bird. She has staged her own sexual revolution and her parents (guess what! They used to have sex themselves!) come to accept and respect her for that.
That’s what I gleaned about the plot. The show is a shallow, hollow experience. It is all surface and no substance. When Johnny strides across the stage and utters the most famous and, for him, the best enunciated, line, “Nobody puts Baby in a corner” the place exploded with cheers (almost as loud as the catcalls when he took his shirt off). Not because of any dramatic impact and its effect on the characters but because he said the famous line. It is a catchphrase and nothing more.
The whole thing is like watching kids play-acting their favourite film. Yes, the dancing is well done; I can’t detract from the dancing. But the show doesn’t engage the emotions as the film, presumably, does.
And I have an issue with the music. Most of it is from the period and that’s fine, but there is a couple of songs, original to the movie, that jar. Suddenly 80s rhythms and electric piano arrangements blare out incongruously. And nobody seems to notice. It makes all those neat little historical references that evoke the period seem glib and superficial… Sorry, more glib and more superficial.
The film is obviously well-loved but the material would be better served shown as a film on a big screen rather than this expensive and empty charade.