Dirty Dancing – Festival Theatre

Written by Eleanor Bergstein

Directed by Federico Bellone

Rating: 4 out of 5.

A summer break in the sixties; where the band plays on into the drawn-out evening twilight and the cocktails are never empty. Where dance instructors take a role in the hospitality industry, but one which was derided by some. Snobbery runs amok in the stage adaptation of the classic cinematic piece Dirty Dancing, where Dr Houseman brings his family, including their youngest daughter Frances “Baby”, to his patient’s summer resort. 

Raw, there’s no attempt to masquerade Dirty Dancing for anything other than what it is: Damn fine entertainment, with frivolity and theatrical sentiment. Ideologies surrounding racial segregation and a woman’s autonomy slip into the narrative, tastefully if broad stroked against the blossoming love story of Baby and dance teacher and egotistical heartthrob Johnny. 

Shortcuts are expectantly taken in the adaptation to stage, and though these can feel rushed in moments – those familiar with the old favourite won’t struggle. Newcomers will welcome the contemporariness recognised in the adaptation for its context (if oversimplified) of class, race and gender expectations. Writer Eleanor Bergstein does their utmost to maintain the creativity and charm for the original while pushing for a more cohesive and dimension angle to Baby’s parents, particularly Dr Houseman.

There’s a tremendous amount of expectation laying at the feet of Michael O’Reilly in Patrick Swayze’s eponymous role of dancer Johnny Castle and Kira Malou as Baby. Perhaps an expectant bucket of water to quench the fired passions of audience members is a necessity given the production’s exploitative abundance of flesh (not that there are any complaints). But what is to be remembered is that outside of physique, O’Reilly, Malou and Carlie Milner (Penny) are exceptionally competent dancers with strength and precision in movement, chemistry and swagger.

Gingerly, Baby flourishes into an independent woman away from her family, but not so much to devalue the adoration she shares with her father. Thought the baby steps of movement Baby initially performs come over as a tad contrite and a cheap shot, the skill of Kira Malou aiding with the naivety of Baby, but there’s no hiding the brilliance within Malous’s physicality.

Not quite as liberal as he would hope to think, Baby’s father played by Lynden Edwards takes a measure of care to develop Dr Houseman more so than the remainder of the ensemble cast. And whereas Houseman’s story has a complete arc, Carlie Milner pushes the audience into wanting to know more about dancer Penny Johnson. Sturdy, with sincerity, there’s a lot more to Penny than the posters showcase. The production’s core is with the dance and music, and Austin Wilks builds on the success of the original film’s score and movement, placing gravitas and energy into musical numbers.

Where dance is concerned, the principal three have this covered – vocally, the charisma of Colin Charles as Tito Suarez and synchronising with the onstage musicians as a part of Kellerman’s band; Ben Mabberley, Tom Mussel and Miles Russel. There’s confidence within the vocal talent, Amber Sylvia Edmunds leading the cast with a reassuring presence.

And swagger the cast must to fill out the stage with movement given the removal of much of the touring productions set pieces. Streamlined, this does allow director Federico Bellone necessary room to capitalise on humour between the more solemn moments; set against the summer of 1963, a world about to be shaken to its core by the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Kennedy. Where the fight was beginning, and it was going to be a long one. There’s a charge to the cast, as equally poignant as they are humorous – there’s an indisputable passion by a new generation of musical-theatre performers.

And now that the temperature has dipped, the Festival Theatre is the place to be to warm the loins faces of theatregoers. Classic, ridiculous and captivating experience with a familiar tale, Dirty Dancing celebrates its 100th touring show of this year and looks forward to having the time of their lives all across the nation. 

Dirty Dancing runs at the Festival Theatre until November 13th. Tickets can be booked here.

Photo Credit – Mark Senior

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