Before we begin, let’s make one thing clear: I love this film. I really do. The dancing, the storyline, the aesthetic, it’s all there. For people like me, the stage production of Dirty Dancing is an excellent rendering of the film. For anyone looking for a piece of standalone theatre, this is not the place to go. The play is more of a homage than an individual work; this doesn’t undermine it in any way, but it’s important to bear in mind.
There’s no end of talent on display in this production. The cast are dynamic and enthusiastic, and the dancers – the dancers. I couldn’t stop looking at Simone Covele as Penny, who moves like a single and uninterrupted wave. The ensemble create the background noise of Kellerman’s resort with impressive synchronicity. Though at times they struggle to all fit onstage (in particular the first group dance around the dinner tables), their energy is an essential piece of the puzzle. The live band and singers are also exceptional, and contribute to the palpable 1960s nostalgia that permeates the show.
From the get-go, we’re utterly absorbed into the Housemans’ all-inclusive and all-American family holiday. Each member of the family is distinctly characterised and each is given space to grow, not least Lisa (Lizzie Ottley), whose air-headed antics refine into bemused but unconditional love for her sister Baby (Kira Malou). Malou makes fantastic work in her role. She presents a multi-dimensional character whose maturity and intelligence is complemented by her teenage wilfulness and humour. It’s also a treat to watch her evolution as a dancer, from atrociously wooden, to strong enough to perform the iconic lift.
This, thanks to Johnny Castle (Michael O’Reilly). His is bold and self-assured facade that hides a generous heart and the fear that he will never be more than what he is. Their relationship teaches both Johnny and Baby how to be vulnerable with one another, and how to stand up for what they believe in. Malou and O’Reilly have crackling chemistry onstage, so much so that when the first kiss scene came around, a hush fell across the audience.
Some aspects fell short, sadly. While the set is sleek and evocative, some set changes are completely unnecessary. If stagehands spend thirty seconds setting up a scene that lasts half that time, perhaps the design needs rethinking. Further, the cast need to give more weight to individual lines. I could feel that they were waiting for the last line of a scene before shooting off into the next one, which detracts from the effect of the dialogue. This contributed to the impression that the cast were simply reciting the film verbatim and giving it no new life of its own.
Still, it’s an impressive undertaking, and a successful one at that. The humour lands well, the romance is believable, and the music is infectious. The costuming is also gorgeous, all billowing skirts and unbuttoned shirts. On a thematic level, we witness a story of two different worlds colliding and the obstacles we must overcome to get what we want. It’s also a subtle commentary on the hindrances to female sexuality in the 60s. After all, Baby and Johnny only get together thanks to Penny’s needing an abortion, and it’s clear that Robbie (Tom Bowen) will face no consequences other than a disapproving glare from Jake Houseman (Lynden Edwards).
A summer romance with depth and swagger, this production of Dirty Dancing is guaranteed to have you tapping your toes and wishing you hadn’t quit dance school when you were eleven. Vibrant, sexy, and multi-dimensional, it kept the audience in the theatre until well after the cast had left the stage, just so we could listen to the band play one last song.
PHOTOS: Alastair Muir
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