Dirty Dancing: The Musical

Eleanor Bergstein
Karly Sydow and Joye Entertainment in association with Lionsgate, Magic Hour and Triple A Entertainment Group
Grand Opera House, York
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Since its release in 1987, the film Dirty Dancing has gained a cult following that borders on the pathological. A modest box-office hit at the time, the film’s soundtrack album would become one of the biggest sellers in music history (over 32 million copies) and its subsequent stage adaptation was the fastest selling show in West End theatre history. Not a bad legacy for a low-budget film with no A-list stars.

In her excellent book Life Moves Pretty Fast, Hadley Freeman writes joyously about the enduring appeal of Dirty Dancing, arguing that many male critics didn’t “get” the film back in 1987 because it explores female sexuality in a way that other teen films of the period (Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and Say Anything, for example) did not. Too easily written off as a piece of Mills & Boon wish-fulfilment fantasy, there’s more to Dirty Dancing than one might expect and I was curious to see how the film might be reinterpreted for the stage.

The year is 1963 and 17-year-old Frances ‘Baby’ Houseman (Kira Malou) is holidaying with her well-to-do family in New York’s Catskill Mountains. Whereas her parents and elder sister immerse themselves in resort activities, Baby finds herself drawn to the dancing staff—particularly hunky instructor Johnny Castle (Michael O’Reilly).

When Johnny’s dancing partner Penny (Simone Covele) is unable to make a performance, Baby agrees to fill in for her, and romance slowly blossoms between her and Johnny. But will their love survive the stern disapproval of Baby’s father (Lynden Edwards)?

This year, I’ve seen several musicals based on films, ranging from the wonderful (Hairspray) to the dire (An Officer and a Gentleman). Unfortunately, I would have to place Dirty Dancing in the latter category. No real attempt has been made to reimagine the film in theatrical terms, so what we’re left with is a creaking, mechanical replica.

To be fair to the show’s producers, I’m sure that most of its target audience are relieved the show cleaves so faithfully to the original. They’ve bought tickets precisely because they want to see their favourite film—with its eighties take on sixties fashion and distinctive jukebox soundtrack (“Hungry Eyes, “Hey! Baby”, “Do You Love Me?” and “(I’ve Had) The Time Of My Life”)—recreated in front of their eyes. Such an approach, however, was never likely to make for a thrilling theatrical experience.

There were a few occasions where the production seemed to poke fun at itself, and these isolated moments made me long for a more ironic, self-aware show—a bit like The 39 Steps, only with tulle skirts.

As with An Officer and a Gentleman, I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t surrender to the show’s cheesy charms at times. There are some lively and raunchy dance numbers courtesy of Gillian Bruce, and these are enthusiastically performed by the ensemble. The onstage band, led by Colin Charles, inject much-needed energy into the production, and there are some nice vocal performances from Alex Wheeler and Sian Gentle-Green.

Notwithstanding some dodgy American accents, the cast give committed performances. Moreover, they coped admirably with a technical fault in the second half that delayed the production by 10 minutes. Kira Malou does a good job of conveying Baby’s growing maturity and there’s a game turn from Lizzie Ottley as her dim-witted sister.

Michael O’Reilly, making his professional debut, is suitably moody as Johnny, but he’s given little to do other than provide eye candy for the largely female audience. The most vibrant performance of the evening comes from Simone Covele as Penny—it’s just a shame she’s one of the supporting characters.

In summary, I didn’t have the time of my life (bad dum tss!), but I’m sure devotees of the film will love it.

James Ballands