MusicalNorth WestReview

Dirty Dancing – The Classic Story on Stage- The Place Theatre, Manchester

Reviewer: David Cunningham

Writer: Eleanor Bergstein

Director: Federico Bellone

The Place Theatre in Manchester made national headlines recently by closing down a performance of The Bodyguard which was interrupted by a patron attempting to sing along at the climax. Therefore, one approaches Dirty Dancing at that theatre with a degree of caution- hard to think of a show more likely to provoke nostalgic and raucous vocal outbursts from audience members of a certain age.

In 1963 America is undergoing rapid social change. But the Houseman family maintain tradition by vacationing in a staid Catskill Mountains holiday resort. Beneath the placid surface, however, there are dark undercurrents – the manager regards the dance instructors as gigolos and expects them to romance as much as teach guests.

There are strains also within the Houseman family. Older daughter Lisa (Daisy Steere) is determined to have sex for the first time during the holiday and even the apparently dutiful Frances (Kira Malou), who accepts the condescending nickname ‘Baby’, has a dark side cursing the Cuban Missile Crisis for increasing the possibility she will die a virgin. That becomes less likely when she encounters lead dancer Jonny (Michael O’Reilly) at an afterhours shindig where the professionals cut loose and indulge in ‘dirty dancing’. But romance is hindered by Jonny being aware of the social class difference between them and disapproval of parents and employers.

The tagline in the title The Classic Story on Stage is accurate. The objective is to recreate, not challenge or renovate, the story from the movie. Director Federico Bellone does not try to turn the film into a stage musical, where the singing drives along the plot and articulates the feelings for the characters, but uses the songs as background to the action. The principal characters do not sing but rather perform, as songs from the film soundtrack are sung and played live by other cast members. The music even fades out so as not to interrupt the spoken dialogue. The film had relatively few original songs so the soundtrack is a mixture of classic numbers from the sixties and more glossy, less soulful, tunes from the 1980’s but all sung with gusto and commitment.

Bellone ensures scene changes reach almost cinematic speed. The cast behave as employees of the resort, moving props and setting scenery, so there is never a pause and one scene bleeds into another seamlessly.

Michael O’Reilly takes the role of Jonny so seriously as to come close to a parody of the brooding bad boy image. He panders to audience expectations spending parts of the show shirtless thus generating the inevitable catcalls and wolf whistles which would be considered offensive if directed at a woman. Jonny’s partnership with Penny (Georgina Aspinall in a stunning stage debut) sets the scene for truly inflammatory dancing. Aspinall has elastic legs and a back without a bone and her supple movements against O’Reilly’s imposing charismatic lead ensures the dancing really is dirty.

Kira Malou has the daunting task of being a talented dancer pretending to be clumsy. Although director Bellone pinches many of Baby’s routines from the movie Malou brings her own interpretation to the role. Along with a nicely klutzy Daisy Steere, Malou carries most of the comedy in the show, particularly the awkward, stumbling solo dance rehearsals.

The star of the show is, however, the choreography from Austin Wilks. Wilks embraces the lascivious theme of the show staging dances which are a blur of pumping hips and entwined legs. Wilks is a terrible tease – the opening dance montage constantly moves towards, and shies away from, the dramatic lift the audience knows will not arrive until the climax.

Despite the high quality of the performances and the stunning choreography Dirty Dancing – The Classic Story on Stage is limited by a lack of ambition. The show aspires to simply reproduce the film in a live environment as faithfully as possible rather than expand or revise the storyline. As such the show is content to be a tribute act rather than an original piece of work.

Runs until 3rd June 2023

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The North West team is under the editorship of John McRoberts. 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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