Dirty Dancing: The Classic Story on Stage – Dominion Theatre, London

Reviewer: Maryam Philpott

Writer: Eleanor Bergstein

Director: Federico Bellone

Some shows are critic proof and it won’t matter in the slightest what this review or the many others have to say, the West End return of Dirty Dancing: The Classic Story on Stage will attract its audience anyway both here in London and for the extensive UK tour that follows. The source material — the 1987 film starring Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey – is such a part of pop culture history, its songs so familiar, every line and character so beloved that viewers will have the time of their lives just being a part of it.

It’s 1963, Martin Luther King is making his famous speech, civil rights activists are protesting in the South and the Housemans are heading to Kellerman’s holiday camp for the last few weeks of summer. Bored of the wholesome activities, the youngest daughter and activist Frances known as “Baby” gets entangled with some staff members who need her help and soon she’s fallen in love with dance teacher Johnny Castle. But can their love breach the economic and class divide between them?

Federico Bellone’s show, now in its 18th year, knows that its audience wants to see as much of the film as possible on stage and this production does a pretty effective copy and paste job. The dialogue is lifted word for word, scenes run in the same order, even Jennifer Irwin’s costumes largely emulate those worn by the original characters in every moment of the film. The music is largely all there too, either performed live by the Kellerman’s band led by vocalist Colin Charles playing Tito or added as original recordings. Some of the high points in fact are Lydia Sterling’s vocals, capturing those beautiful 60s songs along with that famous duet performed with Danny Colligan who plays Billy.

In turning a 90-minute film into a two-hour stage experience there are some additional scenes, particularly in the second act that expands a little on the prejudice of Dr Houseman and gives his wife a few more lines, although these characters, along with Lisa feel far paler than their celluloid counterparts. And this is a dance musical so there is plenty of space for the traditional ballroom numbers as well as the saucier sections in the afterhours staff club.

But something about Bellone’s show feels too polished. The joy of the original film was the thrown-together feel of it and the expressive earthiness of the new form of dancing. Here, Austin Wilks’ choreography is too slick and everything is performed at high speed, often at odds with the slower, sultry pace of the music and the connection it should create between the dancers. The ensemble is superb; they can do flicks and tricks at speed – particularly Charlotte Gooch as Penny – and there’s no denying the talent of the dancers but it lacks that organic individualism that made the form so exciting to Baby in the movie.

The central pairing is well received, especially Kira Malou as Baby who delivers a really entertaining performance, drawing lots of comedy from learning to dance while capturing the romantic and sexual awakening of the character, all of which Malou achieves with aplomb. Michael O’Reilly is certainly a superb dancer and finds momentary connection with Malou in the romantic scenes, but a slightly stilted performance makes it difficult to understand why Johnny is attracted to Baby – although its probably quite difficult to act when besieged by an inappropriate swell of catcalls and cheers every time he takes his shirt off.

The surrounding performances are more variable and Bellone’s pacing is uneven, rushing through the early relationship that means the story, though longer than the film, doesn’t quite land as well. It’s entertaining and the finale lives up to expectations as Johnny rushes up the aisle to utter the immortal line about a corner, concluding with a happy ending danceathon. Dirty Dancing: The Classic Story on Stage may feel like a faded facsimile, but the audiences will come anyway.

Runs until 29 April 2023

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The Reviews Hub London is under the acting editorship of Richard Maguire. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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