Two cautionary tales

Dirty Dancing: The Classic Story on Stage. Lyric Theatre, Sydney, December 3, 2014

Beyond Desire, By Neil Rutherford and Kieran Drury. Hayes Theatre Co, Sydney, November 26.

WHO can tell why a modest little rom-com such as Dirty Dancing wins a passionate and lasting following while others are tossed on to the cinema scrapheap within a fortnight? As American writer William Goldman so sagely observed about the movie business, “nobody knows anything”.

Made in 1987 but set in 1963, “before President Kennedy got shot, before the Beatles came”, Dirty Dancing – the film – is writer Eleanor Bergstein’s sweet American coming-of-age, breaking-loose story lightly seasoned with social-conscience issues and a dash of class conflict. It has attractive stars in Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey, a soundtrack of popular songs and lots of locked-loins dance. The critics were lukewarm.

The audience, however, loved seeing a bright, warm-hearted girl getting together with a sexy rebel and latched on to two things: an overhead dance lift that made the young woman look as if she could fly and that much-loved film trope, a manly but sensitive public declaration of affection. “No one puts Baby in a corner.” Ker-ching.

KirbyBurgess and Kurt Phelan in Dirty Dancing: The Classic Story on Stage. Photo: Jeff Busby
Kirby Burgess (Baby Houseman) and Kurt Phelan (Johnny Castle) in Eleanor Bernstein’s Dirty Dancing: The Classic Story on Stage. Photo: Jeff Busby

The stage show, a version of which premiered in Sydney 10 years ago and has since enjoyed wide international success, reproduces these moments and much else besides. Key images from the film are created with video projections, dialogue is transferred unchanged and line readings are thriftily recycled. There’s even a wig for star Kirby Burgess that mimics Grey’s abundant hair. Even more fundamentally, there is no process of recreation; no transference of the story from the medium of film to that of musical theatre. Music is either part of the soundtrack, presented as live entertainment at the holiday retreat in which the story is set or – and this is very illogical – sung by minor characters.

So yes, on one level Dirty Dancing: The Classic Story on Stage is doggedly faithful to its source. On another it’s a gaudy puppet-show, minus the fun. As seen on the big Lyric Theatre stage, Dirty Dancing has exactly the wrong degree of exaggeration to fill the space. Minor characters are caricatures, leads Kurt Phelan and Burgess are directed as Swayze and Grey clones and the action has been expanded to accommodate choreography of a particularly stridentl and vulgar kind. Everything falls into the abyss, being neither intimate enough for the story nor lavishly appointed enough for sweep-you-away theatrical spectacle.

There’s not a scrap of genuine visceral or emotional connection. The lascivious hip-twirling and arched backs sure do get the audience squealing but the charge has all the allure of a buck’s night. The use of the body is to dance – is supposed to be to dance – what tubes of oil paint are to an artist: the medium through which something is expressed. Otherwise it’s gymnastics. In Dirty Dancing we saw the equivalent of paint being thrown extravagantly on to a canvas every which way. Colourful, without doubt, but with not a skerrick of emotional value or meaning. And alas, four couples distributed around a too-large stage do not constitute a thrilling ensemble. Another ker-ching, which is the sound of a production saving on cast costs.

No wonder Phelan’s Johnny Castle looks so tense. Phelan can move but his performance is all on the surface. Burgess – by far the best thing in the production – has warmth but, to quote the immortal wisdom of Velma Kelly in Chicago, she can’t do it alone.

Dirty Dancing has no life, no spark and no joy but I’ll acknowledge this: it does know how to press a button. Ker-ching.

A week before seeing Dirty Dancing I was at Hayes Theatre Co to see a very different kind of musical theatre. Many of my colleagues disliked Beyond Desire intensely; I think they were a little harsh on a new work (albeit one that has been in development for 25 years). Let’s put it this way. I would infinitely prefer to see Beyond Desire again than sit through Dirty Dancing another time. That’s not to say Beyond Desire doesn’t have problems – it does, many of them to do with a concentration of roles in one hand. I’ll get back to that. But first, the show as it is.

Phillip Lowe and Blake Bowden in Beyond Desire. Photo: Oliver Toth
Phillip Lowe and Blake Bowden in Beyond Desire. Photo: Oliver Toth

Anthony, a young university graduate, is recalled to England from holiday in Italy to find his father, Edward, has died. In short order his mother marries Edward’s business partner and Anthony finds himself confused, melancholy and suspicious that his father’s death was not suicide as the wallopers concluded. No wonder, when Edward is busily dropping damaging hints from his current residence, the undiscover’d country from whose bourn no traveller returns.

Hamlet gives Beyond Desire most of its characters and plot, which are then fashioned into an Edwardian-era music drama spiced up with a pinch of E.M. Forster’s Maurice and a big helping of Upstairs, Downstairs. The whole is enveloped in the claustrophobic atmosphere of an Agatha Christie country-house murder mystery and the unifying theme of Beyond Desire is that everyone has secrets (a theme, incidentally, that extends to behind the scenes in this production; the clues are there for anyone who cares to seek them out). At the end, homage is paid to Christie’s The Mousetrap when the cast begs the audience not to reveal an important plot twist to others.

Fair enough, although devotees of Hamlet and aficionados of the mystery novel – and yes, a Venn diagram of these groups is possible – will have little difficulty in working out what’s what quite early. This of course can be part of the enjoyment so I wouldn’t mark Beyond Desire down on that account. Book writer Neil Rutherford has rightly planted appropriate clues. Much more problematic is the show’s lack of inner tension despite its juicy elements of sudden death, family discord, forbidden love, the class divide and the supernatural. Rutherford has paid close attention to the forms of his inspirations but has not captured their essence. The lean muscularity of the best mystery fiction and the vitality of popular Edwardian entertainment are missing. Earnestness and reverence prevail over the occasional welcome flash of knowingness about the many appropriations.

I did enjoy the moment when the maid, Emily, is sent to the garden to talk to Anthony and glean what afflicts him (well, in slightly different terms), but borrowing so extensively and obviously from famous sources would seem to require a sharper sense of awareness about it. Nancye Hayes’s housekeeper Martha, delivered with Maggie Smith-esque acidity, comes closest to the mark.

Likeable performances from the cast of eight, led by Blake Bowden’s lusciously sung Anthony, are some recompense. And while the lyrics tend to deliver too much plot and not enough character, the score – heavily influenced by early 20th century composers – is lush, melodic and gorgeously orchestrated for piano (played by music director Peter Rutherford), violin, cello, clarinet, harp and horn. The colours are exquisite, although an iffy sound balance on opening night meant it wasn’t always easy to understand what was being said when text was in competition with underscoring.

Had there been a more successful realisation of all the elements – direction, book, lyrics, music, orchestration, set design, lighting – Beyond Desire would still not have been a music-theatre piece for the ages, but would have been an enjoyable piece of light entertainment. A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder, which won the Tony award for best musical this year, has absolutely no pretensions to being other than bright and witty and succeeds delightfully (I saw it earlier this year).

And why was this more successful realisation elusive in Beyond Desire? It’s hard not to think that Rutherford took on far too many creative roles. Among other duties, he wrote the book and lyrics and he directed. The program reveals the presence of two unusually named men, Luther Forinder as set designer and Leon Ferrithurd as orchestrator. It doesn’t take a genius to work out that they are anagrams. Given the length of time Rutherford has been working on Beyond Desire he may not have had to do everything at once – many of the elements may have been completed to his satisfaction before he started directing the show, but therein is the catch. Seeing the show come together in rehearsal, Rutherford was in the position of having to discuss any problems with himself. Would he overrule himself? Would he argue with himself? Could he stand back from himself to make a decision that might not necessarily please himself?

Rutherford’s passion for his project undoubtedly clouded his judgment. It’s a shame.

Beyond Desire ends December 14.

After its Sydney season Dirty Dancing moves to Melbourne from March 1; Brisbane from May 27; Perth from August 2.

Versions of these reviews appeared in The Australian on November 28 and December 5. 

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