REVIEW: Dirty Dancing: The Classic Story on Stage – Nobody puts this show in the corner

Michael O’Reilly (Johnny) Kira Malou (Baby) Simone Covele (Penny) Dirty Dancing – The Classic Story on Stage; Photo credit Alastair Muir

Venue: Wolverhampton Grand Theatre

Performance Date: 01 April 2019

Star Rating: ★★★★

Dirty Dancing is arguably one of the most beloved movies of all times. Released in 1987 and shot on a modest budget the movie was a runaway success, catapulting its leads, Jennifer Grey and Patrick Swayze to super-stardom. Over 30 years later it is still as popular as ever with old and new audiences alike. With a soundtrack as successful and famous as the film itself, Dirty Dancing is as familiar as it is iconic.

Dirty Dancing: The Classic Story on Stage is a coming of age love story set against the backdrop of 1960’s holiday resort ‘Kellerman’s’. Dirty Dancing centres around the innocent and naïve 17-year-old Frances ‘Baby’ Houseman who is holidaying with her parents and older sister Lisa. After accidentally stumbling across the staff quarters (while carrying a watermelon) she is mesmerised by the raunchy dancing she witnesses and she becomes taken with the brooding and handsome dance instructor Johnny Castle. The two soon learn that opposites really do attract as Baby is thrown into Johnny’s world with her family none the wiser.

First adapted for the stage in 2004, Dirty Dancing made its debut in Australia. Written by Eleanor Bergstein, the stage adaptation stays true to the movie script verbatim with some new scenes added to the narrative. The show made its West End debut at the Aldwych Theatre on October 23, 2006, where it recorded the highest pre-sales in London’s history. The original West End production closed in July 2011 with a national tour following. A return to the West End followed in 2013, where it played until 2014 before resuming its UK and Ireland Tour.

The most recent tour, directed by Federico Bellone, opened at the Brighton Theatre Royal in September 2018 with Kira Malou and Michael O’Reilly stepping into the roles of Baby and Johnny. There is no denying that they have incredibly big shoes to fill, but both make each role their own.

Malou in particular, embodies Baby with just the right combination of naivety and determination. Her believability as Baby is testament to Jennifer Irwin’s costume design which adds to the authenticity of the character.

She perfectly articulates Baby’s journey from timid teen to womanhood through some finely balanced character development. Malou is clearly a very accomplished dancer which makes her depiction of Baby all the more amusing as she struggles with the steps as she learns to dance.

O’Reilly is charming as Johnny, and executes the famous Swayze moves with confidence and assurance. His Johnny is significantly grumpier than the movie version but instead of being detrimental, O’Reilly adds his own essence to the character.

Simone Covele is wonderful as Penny and the Hungry Eyes scene is a particular highlight of Act One. The connection between the three characters is believable and in such a tactile production genuine chemistry within the cast is incredibly important. It is a shame that Covele is not afforded more opportunities to shine, but with the script staying so rigidly tight to the original there is no room for further character development which is a pity.

Lizzie Ottley provides a standout turn as Baby’s dim-witted sister Lisa, and she completely steals the show during the Hula Hana scene. Her comedic timing is second to none and she delivers an incredibly nuanced performance making it one of the strongest in the production.

Dirty Dancing boasts a strong ensemble cast. Alex Wheeler (Billy) and Sian Gentle-Green (Elizabeth) do justice to (I’ve Had) The Time of My Life which adds to the triumphant climax of the show as they show off their vocals.

Gillian Bruce’s choreography replicates the original dance routines but at times the movement feels over exaggerated, causing a lack of fluidity. With the production staying so true to the original script, many scenes feel rushed making it difficult to engage meaningfully with the characters.

The new scenes don’t well fit with the overall narrative and as such don’t add any significant value. The creatives have missed an opportunity to develop and enhance existing scenes which could have provided some character development and added to the flow of the overall piece.

Although Dirty Dancing has never actually been billed as a musical, the stage adaptation is somewhat of a hybrid. Not quite a play and not quite a musical there is no traditional band. Instead, three (multi-talented) musicians appear on stage as ‘Kellerman’s Band’.

The music is a fusion of original tracks and live music, enhanced by the musicians and the ensemble cast. Roberto Comotti’s rotating set design is simple and effective, with iconic scenes including the Hey Baby dance on the log and the lake lift delivered in a tongue in cheek manner, complemented by Valerio Tiberi’s lighting design.

Despite a few imperfections, Dirty Dancing is the ultimate in feel-good theatre. Unashamedly cheesy, what it lacks in technical prowess it makes up for in heart, providing fun in abundance. It is a sound tribute to the movie, offering a perfect opportunity for a couple of hours of escapism. Both devoted fans of the film and new audiences will undoubtedly have the time of their lives.

Dirty Dancing: The Classic Story on Stage plays at Wolverhampton Grand until Saturday 6 April 2019.

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