Monday, May 13, 2013

Dirty Dancing (Lunchbox Theatrical)

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Summer of 1963. A peek into Baby's socialite life means either long nights full of social dancing or a repetitive game of Simon Says. Just like every teenager during that time, her life has been planned well ahead for her as she anticipates her next few years to be spent as part of the Peace Corps. Never has she thought that a little bit of Mambo and some big band could change her life. When the long-time dance partner of star dancer Johnny Castle gets knocked up by a waiter, Baby suggests that they find someone to fill in for her until an abortion is successfully done, lest the dance group lose a significant amount of their meager wages. That someone ends up being her. She then spends the next few days in serious training with him, transitioning from naive girl to competitive dancer and finding her way to womanhood in the process.

An announcement in Cantonese and Mandarin is followed by an English advisory reminding you that this is the summer of 1963, and that mobile phones have not been invented yet. You would then hear the infectious beating of the drums that serves as a prelude to Be My Baby. This opening song and dance number serves as your warning: Stay put and try to keep your ass on your seat. I must tell you though that this would be rather difficult to do. Imagine Mamma Mia! but with more dance in lieu of song. Seats should be declared illegal for shows like this, if only to keep everyone on their feet to sway to the beat without restriction when they feel like it. And you will always feel like it during the show’s more than two-hour run.

The fact that the dancing itself takes center stage could not be emphasized enough. The skirt tossing and the big band are awesome, but they take the backseat. You would want to be dancing from the time the curtain is pulled up for Be My Baby until it goes down after Time of My Life. Everyone in the cast is a pro in dance, particularly Baby and Johnny, but no one comes close to Penny, played con mucho gusto by South African Mila de Biaggi. I have not seen a character light up the stage like that with killer dance moves and all the skirt-tossing since West Side Story’s Anita. Every lift keeps you at the edge of your seat, each sway of her hips adds a touch of sensuality that is just the perfect balance to Baby’s more wholesome version of the same dance moves.

The guy who plays Johnny has some mix of Patrick Swayze and George Chakiris going on. Okay, maybe just Patrick Swayze. Nonetheless, he is able to make the role his own, although most people would still compare him to Swayze by default. There is no going against that; the role is kind of iconic after all. The good thing is that he is able to make you believe that he could really dance like that. No faking. No tricks. The same story could be said for the girl who plays Baby. The naïveté is there, but the transition is done smoothly that when she finally gets her act together, you would be able to appreciate her progress. Her evolution is also reflected in her dance moves; subtle parallelism!

In terms of production design, Lunchbox Theatrical never disappoints. They were also responsible for the staging of The Phantom of the Opera and Mamma Mia! in Manila. Budget does not seem to be a problem for them, which is a good thing because the sets used for this show are effectively utilized to give you a different kind of theater experience, something that is more techie but tolerable. The moving panels are maximized for transition purposes and for capturing different angles of certain scenes as if shooting a film. The hologram backgrounds do a convincing job, except maybe for that part where they are supposed to be in the water. That was a bit funny.  Perhaps, this is the future of special effects in theater. As long as it is not abused, why not!

You would eventually compare this to the movie, that is if you have seen it and remain a big fan until now. However, these two are different mediums that should be appreciated based on their own strengths. For the theater version, it has the advantage of being shown live. That feeling of wanting to get up and vibrate with the beat is something that the movie could only do to a limited extent, albeit with the effects not so immediate. And yes, the dancing! See this for the dancing, you will not be underwhelmed!

Dirty Dancing will be staged in Manila this July. If you cannot wait that long, you could see it in Singapore this June. As far as advertisements are concerned, the tour only covers Hong Kong, Singapore, and Manila. Plan accordingly. No one puts Baby in a corner! And it is about time that we heard the best version of Time of My Life again since the Blackeyed Peas murdered it.

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