Your reaction to the stage musical version of Dirty Dancing depends upon two key factors: the extent of your nostalgic affection for the classic 1987 film, and your early-evening pink Champagne intake level. Last night’s star-studded audience seemed thoroughly prepared on both counts, given the quantity of merry whoops and giggles, but it does highlight a problem for the creative team: do you aim for a serious West End dramatic show, or embrace that fact that this is essentially fandom bingo, with the majority of viewers itching to tick off “I carried a watermelon”, “Spaghetti arms!” and, of course, “Nobody puts Baby in a corner”?
On the whole, this revival production bows to the die-hard fans, hardly changing a word or step from the original movie. That does pose certain challenges, notably re-creating scenes in tricky locations – designer Stephen Brimson Lewis’s solution of projection screens is a solid (if filmic) shortcut, although the log and water training sequences are unintentionally farcical – and selling the cheesy dialogue, which is even more endearingly clunky when we’re racing through brief movie-style scenes. On the plus side, it gives the evening a frenetic energy, but it does mean the cast has to switch between heightened emotional beats at the speed of light, seldom given time to get their teeth into the drama.
Of course, all of this is forgivable if we’re thoroughly seduced by the central Romeo and Juliet love story, which speaks to the underappreciated teenager within. Jill Winternitz, making her West End début, has the right wide-eyed eagerness for Baby and a quirky comic flair, particularly in the convincingly awkward early attempts at dancing, but her rather flat delivery hampers her in the meatier scenes. Paul-Michael Jones as Johnny also struggles to pull off the earnestly hammy speeches, lacking Swayze’s ability to distract with natural swagger and smouldering sex appeal, but impresses with his crisp, dynamic movement, particularly in the all-important closing number. The pair find a decent chemistry, which will hopefully develop further over the run.