Dirty Dancing returns to the West End after an extensive tour (the original production opened in 2016 and has toured off and on since 2013), and opened last night in a packed and glittery Gala performance at the Dominion Theatre.
The iconic 80s romance is re-worked for the stage in this straightforward but energetic production. Full confession: I grew up obsessed with Dirty Dancing, and I kind of still am. The movie’s enduring popularity came from hitting that lighting in a bottle sweet spot of combining escapism (the innocence of the era! The setting! The beautiful sweetness of first love!) with surprisingly sharp social commentary (classicism, abortion) and extraordinary chemistry between the lead actors.
The stage show (the full title actually is “Dirty Dancing – The Classic Story on Stage”) is an extremely literal adaptation that faithfully recreates the movie beat by beat. The producers know what their audience want and give it to them – songs, sex, male flesh, ‘that’ lift, and ‘that’ line. The staging is inventive and colourful (though the staging device used to recreate the classic river scene slightly obscures the leads from view and looks a little bit like a ghostly Thomas Kinkade painting) and the production works in all the much-loved songs from the movie with a few additions besides. In places the transition into some of the musical numbers is a bit clunky – especially when making numbers that were non-diegetic in the movie, diegetic – but that’s rather picking hairs. On the other hand the addition of more overtly political period songs like ‘This Land is Your Land’ and ‘We Shall Overcome’ is baffling, considering the plot and dialogue barely focus on the political and class themes that made the film stand out.
The two young leads (Kira Malou as Baby and Michael O’Reilly as Johnny) lack the chemistry of the original, but shine in the musical numbers. Malou does some interesting character work though her Baby comes across as a little too child-like at times. The talented ensemble is primarily composed of dancers, and it’s in the dance scenes that the production really comes into its own, with Austin Wilks’ stunning choreography a star in its own right. Special notice has to be given to Lynden Edwards who imbues his role as Baby’s father Doctor Houseman with wit and compassion, Colin Charles and Mimi Rodrigues Alves who deliver the vocal highlights of the night, and an underused Carlie Milner who is by far the most gifted dancer, but whose role as Johnny’s pregnant and desperate dancer friend Penny is painfully under-written. Lizzie Ottley also does interesting work in her role as Baby’s self-obsessed but insecure less-favoured sister Lisa.
It’s hard to review a show like this because it’s so clearly what it is: the movie, on stage, for an audience who want to see the movie, on stage. Yes, it’s cheesy. Yes the second biggest cheer of the night happened when the neon Dirty Dancing logo appeared in the middle of a scene. Yes, most of the audience were drunk and I’m pretty sure the woman behind me was eating a pizza. But it’s a damn good night out and it’s great fun. I mostly review “serious” non-West End theatre, but theatre is supposed to be for everyone and that means embracing the whole spectrum. Two thousand people jumping joyously to their feet to cheer and sing along – what celebrates the power of theatre more than that?
Dirty Dancing: The Classic Story on Stage runs at the Dominion Theatre until 16th April.