Dirty Dancing – The Classic Story On Stage

Eleanor Bergstein
Dominion Theatre

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Michael O'Reilly and ensemble in Dirty Dancing Credit: Mark Senior
Charlotte Gooch and Michael O'Reilly Credit: Mark Senior
Michael O'Reilly and Kira Malou Credit: Mark Senior
Colin Charles and ensemble in Dirty Dancing Credit: Mark Senior
Michael O'Reilly and Michael Remick Credit: Mark Senior
Lydia Sterling and Danny Colligan Credit: Mark Senior
Kira Malou, Michael O'Reilly and ensemble in Dirty Dancing Credit: Mark Senior
Lynden Edwards and Kira Malou Credit: Mark Senior
Kira Malou, Michael O'Reilly and ensemble in Dirty Dancing Credit: Mark Senior

Summer of 1963, the optimistic year of John F Kennedy as president, Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights Movement, of the Peace Corps, a time of hope. Hope was dashed with Kennedy assassinated in November and King in 1968. And so it goes. But here we have a musical to chase away the blues. And break some clean-cut American taboos.

Do I hear someone mention reading The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand—hmm… Is anyone listening to the serious socio-political context? It’s there hidden in plain sight. In any case, who cares, it’s the familiar throbbing songs (twenty-two in the first act, seventeen in the second) and the music and the moonlight and the band, on stage throughout, who could ask for anything more… Maybe a tighter pace, but that will come.

A coming-of-age tale based on her own personal experiences, Eleanor Bergstein wrote and co-produced the 1987 Dirty Dancing film. This led to the musical version in Australia in 2004. The musical broke box office records in New York in 2007, had a five-year run at the Aldwych in London, then at the Piccadilly 2013–14, and toured UK and Ireland. Celebrating the film’s 35th anniversary, here we have it again, back for a ten-week run at the Dominion for an encore after its similar 2022 run there.

Bernstein says she has expanded scenes from the film and added more songs. Give the people what they want. And do the people love it. The audience is part of the show, shouting, encouraging, commenting, reacting to the sexy bodies and scenes—dancing crutch to crutch. Johnny taking his shirt off and showing his pectorals sends it wild—he might just be a Chippendale. And when he strips to his well-packed briefs and does the business, well…

A winter warmer and one to take our minds off all the travails in the world, what’s not to like. The auditorium is a seething mass of delight, which encourages the performers. Are there hen parties? Of course there are. When Baby strokes Johnny’s chest, it’s transference in action.

A wave of warmth which must help the newbies in the cast, a visibly nervous leading man, Michael O’Reilly, who looks like a young Christopher Reeve, a muscle-bound superman. “A good looking kid and an OK dancer,” someone says in the show and who am I to quarrel with that… As Johnny, he has a gentleness and vulnerability that is most attractive, especially to young virgin Baby (Kira Malou), who sees his true self across the class divide.

It's a piece of nostalgia—set in a plush summer resort for the wealthy in the Catskill Mountains. Everything is laid on for them by owner Mr Kellerman (Michael Remick) and his son (Alastair Crosswell), even the waiters, Harvard and Yale students, who are here to attend to the needs of the nubile daughters.

On the other side of the divide are the working class dancers and performers, the dance class teachers, Johnny and Penny, not an item, which is a pity, as Penny (the experienced Charlotte Gooch) is the outstanding dancer of the cast. She falls prey to one of the entitled waiters and Baby helps her to get an abortion—botched. All sorts of beans are spilled when Baby’s father Dr Houseman (Lynden Edwards) has to come to the rescue.

Johnny shows his true self to Baby. A dance gigolo, an empty life earning a living, he teaches Baby more than dancing. When Penny can’t perform, Baby has to take her place. As if, you might say, it’s quite a trajectory, but with patience and tender care, he (and Penny) turns her bad dancing into something resembling good. That final difficult lift is achieved.

A fairy tale ending (Valerio Tiberi’s sundae lighting gives it that Hollywood musical period look): a holiday romance, will it be allowed to go further, I doubt it, but many lessons have been learned. Good triumphs, the guilty are punished, sort of.

Colin Charles (Rambert trained) as Tito Suarez is a terrific singer and mover; Danny Colligan as Billy Kostecki has a wonderful tenor voice and Lydia Sterling as resident singer Elizabeth matches him in singing quality. The ensemble is a bunch of talented dancers, several of whom could easily stand in for the leads. Director Federico Bellone has designed an uncluttered set, which doesn't detract from the action.

This production will tour from May to November to eighteen theatres with more dates yet to be announced. O’Reilly and Malou (Johnny and Baby) will be old hands by then—talk about learning on the job.

Reviewer: Vera Liber

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