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Review: Dirty Dancing (Dominion Theatre)

Review by Sam Waite


Reworking popular pieces of work from one medium to be presented in another is far from a new concept. Many of the most popular films are adapted from the page or the theatre, and the ‘film-to-stage adaptation’ is becoming increasingly prevalent. Perhaps no property has provided more fodder for this urge to re-create content than Dirty Dancing, already the inspiration for a TV series, a direct-to-video sequel, a TV musical remake, and this ever-popular theatrical event. Now somebody has put it in the corner (of Tottenham Court Road) as it returns to the Dominion Theatre for the second year, but did I have the time of my life?



For anyone who somehow doesn’t know, Dirty Dancing tells the story of the Houseman family’s vacation at Kellerman’s, a resort in Upstate New York, where families would spend the entire summer golfing, taking dance lessons and playing games against other holidaymakers. We meet Baby, our leading lady, in the summer of 1963 shortly before her first encounter with Johnny, with whom she will become dance partners, lovers, and presumably soulmates.


As in previous productions, Eleanor Bergstein’s script makes little change to her original screenplay. Her intention when bringing the story to the stage was always to make the characters more tangible, and the audience more immersed, rather than re-contextualise her own narrative. This faithfulness is immediately both a strength and a major detractor – the audience are clearly enraptured by the classic songs and thrilled to hear their favourite lines spoken live, but those hoping for a reimagining may be disappointed in finding only a recreation.



It's well known by now that the stage version of Dirty Dancing, although sometimes referred to as a musical, doesn’t feature vocals from the leads and contains only diegetic songs, some of which are even the original recordings used on the film’s multi-platinum soundtrack. While it could cause confusion for those expecting a more traditional piece of musical theatre, this does allow the performers to throw themselves into the choreography without worrying about the impact on their breath support.


As good-girl vacationer Frances “Baby” Houseman and bad-boy dance instructor Johnny Castle, Kira Malou and Michael O’Reilly have chemistry as dance partners but unfortunately never match the magnetism of Jennifer Grey and Patrick Swayze. Malou’s initially sedate performance becomes livelier and more likeable as Baby’s arc progresses, whereas O’Reilly does well to bring gravitas to Johnny’s darker moments, but the whoops and wolf-whistles of the audience made this hard both to hear and to believe. The reactions from the crowd kept a high energy, but this is one example of this energy working against the piece rather than supporting it.



The standout performer of the evening was Charlotte Gooch - as pregnant dancer Penny she is warm, loveable, and by far the best dancer on the stage. A less prominent but equally enjoyable Danny Colligan brings a charm and sensitivity to Johnny’s awkward, less outwardly confident cousin Billy – a generous performer, his acting serves to enhance those he shares scenes with rather than to pull focus.


Special mention must be given not only to Colligan – who provides vocals towards and during the all-important final dance – but to Colin Charles and Lydia Sterling for providing most of the live vocals. Sterling has one particularly stirring moment of passionate belting which helps to balance the sometimes-uneven tone of the show. Meanwhile, the raspy singing of Charles’s Tito immediately feels more authentically ‘60s than much of the piece, helping to ground the events in the period.



While Austin Wilks’ recreation and expansion of the film’s choreography is always a delight to watch (if not all that dirty, save for one moment), I did find myself waiting for the next dance piece to start rather than feeling they complimented the story being told. Sticking so close to the screenplay creates a rushed quality in certain moments, with the rapid change of scenes being much easier on film and making shorter scenes feel unnecessary or like they ought to have been combined for a more seamless presentation. Frankly, this piece of theatre may also simply not be suited to the venue.


Federico Bellone’s simple, multi-functional set allows for mostly unobstructive changes of setting – the deck on the camp’s lake and the stage in the dining hall are one and the same, moved to and fro as needed. His direction, however, is the greatest example of the material not being able to fill the space. Characters speak at an uncomfortable distance from one another, presumably to not be dwarfed by the size of the stage itself and of the Dominion’s auditorium. Where line readings fall flat, it’s hard not to wonder if a physical closeness between scene partners might enhance the intended emotions.



Dirty Dancing isn’t high art, but I also find it hard to believe anyone behind the scenes intended anything so grand. From the titling – Dirty Dancing: The Classic Story on Stage – to the pauses to allow applause at iconic lines, this is a production aimed squarely at the film’s fanbase. Certainly, you could watch this with no prior knowledge of this pop culture phenomenon, but the people who were truly having the time of their lives were the ones who’d grown up with this story and wanted to relive the first time they saw it. It doesn’t make for a perfect piece of theatre, but I’d hardly begrudge those audience members that moment of joy.


★★★


Dirty Dancing plays at the Dominion Theatre until 29th April. Tickets from dirtydancingonstage.co.uk


Photos by Mark Senior

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