As a 10 year old – not even officially old enough to see the 15-rated film – I was obsessed with Dirty Dancing. At the time all I was interested in was the pretty dresses, the awesome 60s/80s soundtrack and the amazing dance moves. I didn’t know – or care – about illegal abortions, socioeconomic class differences, loss of innocence or attempted rape. As I grew older, I watched my VHS copy hundreds of times, could recite the script from any point of the movie and could dance the merengue and the mambo perfectly – albeit alone, with an imaginary Johnny Castle. And Dirty Dancing was also the first stage show that I saw on a West End stage, a present from Mr Fletche for my 30th birthday. And now, it’s back in Birmingham for a week-long run. As the person who was forced to watch the film hundreds of times with me, I bring Ma Lee along for the ride.
There may well be some people out there that have never seen Dirty Dancing before. Not in tonight’s audience. The audience – unsurprisingly predominantly female – are excited even before those opening beats of The Ronette’s “Be My Baby”
It’s a classic tale of forbidden love as seventeen year old Frances “Baby” Houseman falls for the Casanova dance instructor Johnny Castle during a 1963 summer holiday at Kellerman’s Resort in the Catskill Mountains. Eventually their moves on the dancefloor shift into the bedroom, and Baby has to face the breakdown of her close relationship with her father as she moves from naïve teenager to confident, sensual woman.
Kira Malou portrays Baby amazingly well, with impeccable comedy timing and a knack for quick costume changes. Close your eyes and it could be Jennifer Grey up there. Stepping into the Swayze leather jacket and sunglasses is Michael O’Reilly. I’ve seen this on stage twice previously and neither actor has come anywhere close to the swagger, charisma and pure dancing talent of Patrick Swayze but O’Reilly does a great job and there is a believable spark between Baby and Johnny. Indeed, this predominantly female audience seems to appreciate many of O’Reilly’s, ahem, assets. Ma Lee herself increasingly warms to Mr O’Reilly – and she’s a harsh critic.
Simone Covele plays Johnny’s childhood friend Penny, and her scenes with Johnny ooze sensuality. On the dancefloor she is confident, sassy and unbelievably flexible but Covele also manages to display Penny’s vulnerable side as she untangles the tricky situation she finds herself in. I do find some of her dialogue a little rushed though but the first half in particular speeds by at a pretty fast pace. Special mention goes to Colin Charles, who’s Tito is witty and charming, and to Lizzie Ottley for her wonderfully comical hula display as Baby’s sister Lisa.
The film takes place in a number of locations which help move the story along and some remarkable staging by Roberto Comotti means that we do not lose these scenes with ingenious – if unintentionally hilarious at times – use of projection. There’s a bit of filler at times to eke this out to 2 hours plus and sometimes these moments are filled with snippets of songs not generally associated with the Dirty Dancing soundtrack which seem a bit odd. All the famous songs from the soundtrack are there though, and like the film these are either used as background or to accompany the dance scenes. There are singers in the cast but I’m quite pleased that they haven’t turned this into a vocal display and have concentrated on telling the story through dance and the familiar script
Jennifer Irwin has designed the costumes perfectly and are as true to the film as possible, from Baby’s Breton stripe and denim hotpants combo, to the red Sheldrake ballroom dress, to that gorgeous pink number for the finale. The dance scenes are also choreographed to perfection by Gillian Bruce, and the cast have clearly been selected to demonstrate their amazing dancing skills, although this is occasionally to the detriment of their acting skills.
The audience can barely contain themselves by the closing sequence. From the moment O’Reilly storms through the audience to get Baby out of her corner, the audience erupts. In their minds they are dancing every move of that final dance, and we are all mentally soaring through the air as that legendary lift is nailed. It’s the ultimate chick flick, turned into the ultimate girl’s night out.
Dirty Dancing is in Birmingham at the Alexandra Theatre until Saturday 10th November, and then tours the UK until July 2019. Tickets can be purchased here
*I was invited to attend this press event by The Alexandra Theatre, however this doesn’t affect my opinion of the show, and an honest review will be given in all cases.
**All production photos are by Alastair Muir and are used with permission of the Alexandra Theatre