Biz-Community (Cape Town)

30 January 2013

South Africa: Get Down and Dirty Dancing

The Dirty Dancing stage adaptation has been a hit ever since it opened in Australia in late 2004. It broke records in Germany and the UK for having the highest advance ticket sales in history and was sold out for six months in London before the show even began. Now, after being seen by millions around the world, Cape Town audiences can have the time of their lives.

Screenwriter Eleanor Bergstein based Dirty Dancing on her memories of the summer holidays that she spent with her family in Catskill, New York. And so we have the classic story of good girl (Bryony Whitfield) meets bad boy (Gareth Bailey), set in a time that, as casting and creative associate Tomoko Minami reminds us, was "characterised by social and political idealism that challenged the materialistic values and conformity of the 1950s".

Despite the fact that Dirty Dancing had no major stars and was made on a budget of less than half the cost of movies at the time, it went on to become the fifth-highest-grossing film of 1987 (it's earned over USD200 million so far), launching the careers of Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey. It was also the first movie to sell more than a million copies on home video, which just goes to show how much people wanted to experience it over and over again.

More than twice as many songs

Part of its success must be due to the music, which Bergstein actually chose before she wrote the script. (The album, which features contemporary and period tracks, has now sold over 40 million copies worldwide.) "It was the time when your parents' music was no longer their own and you couldn't separate the lyrics from what was happening in your heart," she said.

The stage production features more than twice as many songs (including a beautiful performance of In The Still Of The Night), most of which are accompanied by a live band. So popular is the music that many members of the audience were cheering songs on even before they began. And, of course, the cheers were loudest for Time Of My Life, the show's favourite number and winner of a Grammy, a Golden Globe, and even an Academy Award.

Fairly basic set

Adapting a movie for the theatre always presents challenges and this is especially true for one as popular as Dirty Dancing. Swaying too far from the original, or leaving out key scenes, would leave diehard fans distraught. But, while it's easy to change from day to night in the blink of an eye on the screen, it's a lot harder to have that happen on the stage. Fortunately for us, director Sarah Tipple (working with producers Hazel Feldman, Karl Sydow, and Pieter Toerien) delivers remarkably.

The set is kept fairly basic so that props can slide in and out quickly, while digital backdrops are used to recreate different scenes. This innovative technique realistically captures indoors and outdoors alike, including the scene in the lake, splashes and all. It works so well, in fact, that the production changes effortlessly between all 73 scenes (20 more than in the movie) in the space of just two hours. It's all so impressive that I wish some of those picturesque landscapes could stay on a little longer!

Sensational choreography

As expected, the best part about Dirty Dancing is the sensational choreography. And while not everyone in the mostly South African cast of 26 can maintain the "gee whiz" American accent throughout the show, several weeks of intense rehearsal means that the dancing never skips a beat. "We went through every single step before we came here," associate choreographer Glenn Wilkinson said. "There were things I knew we wanted to change and things we wanted to do differently."

Oddly enough, with many scenes filmed in close-up, the movie doesn't have that much dancing in it compared to similar films. "We can't do that on the stage," Wilkinson explained, "so what we've done is made the choreography really exciting, creating a choreographic language that goes all the way through the show." The result is spectacular, so much so that the performers still manage to look so darn hot even when they're deliberately being, um, not.

Last but not least is the lift. (You know the one I mean.) I've been living in constant fear of a theatre disaster ever since I went to a show last year and died a little inside when an actor forgot his lines. But Dirty Dancing isn't the place for any missteps. The lift was perfect and received a burst of well-deserved applause. And as the production came to an exciting close, I finally understood why Dirty Dancing is such a hit: the times may change but great entertainment never goes out of style.

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