Dirty Dancing, by Eleanor Bergstein

Lyric Theatre, Pyrmont, Sydney | Tickets on sale up to 8 February

Dirty Dancing has been a phenomenon since the 1987 film starring Patrick Swayze. The stage adaptation, written by  screenwriter Eleanor Bergstein, has been staged across the world and watched by more than six million people since opening in London in 2006.

The story begins in the Catskills and the year is 1963. JFK is still alive, America troops are in Vietnam and socially aware teenagers are going on freedom marches in the South and joining the Peace Corps.

It is against this background of radical change that Frances, aka Baby, Houseman (Kirby Burgess) and her family are on holiday at the remote and ultra-conservative Kellerman’s summer camp. Here they are looked after and entertained by an array of staff, including the dance instructor Johnny Castle (Kurt Phelan). When Johnny’s dance partner, Penny Johnson (Nadia Coote) falls pregnant, Johnny has to teach Baby the routine they have been rehearsing, and during these rehearsals, of course, they fall in love.

It is foremost a story of first love and Burgess is totally convincing in the girl-next-door role, but there is not really a great deal of chemistry happening between her and the rather one-dimensional Kurt Phelan.

Make no mistake, Phelan is a fabulous dancer and he is at his best doing just that. His mastery of the choreography is impressively sharply precise, comprising spectacular high lifts and long spins. There is a great deal of writhing choreography and Nadia Coote as Penny, with her high-kicking long limbs, is just mesmerising.

There is little actual dramatic dialogue but a comic performance by Teagan Wouters as Baby’s eccentric older sister, Lisa Houseman, maintains a degree of character development. But the  show is so ultra-faithful in its recreation of the movie that there is at times a loss of theatricality.

Nevertheless, there are excellent production skills on display — in particular Stephen Brimson Lewis’s shifting stage locations, the use of hyper-real video footage and Jennifer Irwin’s costume designs, which provide eye candy in the form of a cat walk of fantastic frocks.

The music, a mixture of recorded 50s and 60s classics by The Chantels, The Drifters, Marvin Gaye and Otis Redding, just to name a few, and powerful live singing by Mark Vincent, all successfully evoke both period and sentiment.

The crowd pleaser arrives at the very end of the show as Johnny leaps on stage to rescue Baby from her corner to the strains of (I’ve Had) The Time of My Life, and executes the infamous lift.

There is a great deal of energy and talent on stage and it is highly likely that the enjoyment of this show will very much depend on the associations the audiences brings to it. I would not go as far as to say that I had the time of my life but I did have a good time.

Kirby Burgess and Kurt Phelan. Images: Jeff Busby.