Writer: Eleanor Bergstein
Director: Frederico Bellone
Supervising Musical Director: Richard John
Choreographer: Gillian Bruce
Reviewer: Janet Jepson
It starts with a beat, and you know you’re in for a treat. The classic story Dirty Dancing is touring stages throughout the UK, and crowds are flocking. There’s just something so special about this heart-warming story that brings audiences to their feet with its infectious energy and feelgood aura, and the folks at Leeds Grand Theatre and Opera House are no exception.
The action is set in 1963 at Kellerman’s, an upmarket hotel with more than a feel of a posh Butlins, where everyone is encouraged to join in the activities on offer. Guests are mainly well-to-do and can afford to pay its fat-cat owner Max Kellerman for indulgent extras such as private dance lessons so that they can shine on the dancefloor at the arranged balls and events every evening. There are talent shows too, but talent can never be bought …Top entertainers are billed, as well as lowly-paid struggling dancers who put on performances but also pander to every whim of the paying guests, teaching dance lessons and often offering more to make a holiday complete.
‘Baby’ Frances Houseman comes along on vacation with her family: doting dad Jake, who’s a successful doctor, mum Marjorie, and sister Lisa, who’s obsessed with fashion, boys and marrying well. Baby wants more from life, a good education and maybe the Peace Corps, and her innocent enquiring mind leads her to get to know the lowlier members of the hotel dance staff. Behind closed doors, in their own time, the young performers hold ‘dirty dances’ with wild sexy moves, and uttering the immortal line “I carried a watermelon”, Baby finds herself a part of their group. Class divisions fall away for her as she befriends Johnny, Penny, Tito and all the gang – certainly not the kind of people Daddy wants her to mingle with. Fate leads her to step in (literally) to cover for Penny, dancing with Johnny, and ultimately saving Penny’s life.
There are wonderful, often very funny, scenes of Johnny teaching Baby the moves to wow on the dancefloor – long denim shorts, flat pumps and an over-active tickle reflex are never guaranteed to do that – but she comes good in the end. A bit of a shy mouse on the outside with an inner lion waiting to get out, Baby has the guts to own up to her father that she is hanging out with the dancers, and the courage to ask him to step in to save Penny’s life after a botched abortion. Inevitably she falls in love with the winsome Johnny and his perfect body, totally accepting that he has slept around with any number of guests. In the final scenes, Johnny is fired after being set up to look like a thief, but Baby is brave enough to face her father’s wrath and give Johnny an alibi, admitting that she spent the whole evening of the robbery with him in his room.
Kira Malou and Michael O’Reilly are amazing as Baby and Johnny – no one will ever equal the incomparable Patrick Swayze, but this is a heroic attempt. Arguably the most accomplished dancer on the stage is Simone Covele who plays Penny, such a shame that she does not have the chance to demonstrate her skills more. The rest of the cast are all perfect for their roles, with the right mix of age and attitude. Costumes are eye-catching, lovely dresses as befit the 60s, and figure-hugging dance outfits to show off talented dancer bodies. The set is straight out of a top-grade hotel; and the special but simple effects of the pouring rain, thunder, and lake water scenes have to be seen to be appreciated. The music is varied, some popular memorable stuff of the era, but other songs rather off the beaten track. At times the lighting is a little harsh, and some audience members may suffer from its intensity, but this only adds to the whole brash, elaborate indulgence of the showy vacation.
Dirty Dancing is much more than just a very watchable stage production with erotic dance moves and well-known catchy music. The story encompasses the serious issues of class division, family unity, human loyalty and the basic levels of right and wrong. This show is over 30 years old, but its issues are still as meaningful today. At base level, it’s a love affair against the odds and a spectacular coming-of-age, but there’s a certainty of leaving the theatre feeling euphoric, having had ‘The Time of [your] life’.
Runs until Saturday 17th August 2019 | Image: contributed