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Dirty Dancing on stage

A true-to-screen production of the well-loved film hits the stage in Sussex.

“That was sooo good!” – the verdict of my sister-in-law and I as we turned to each other beaming (and not a little weepy) at the end of the latest stage outing of Dirty Dancing.

This new tour kicks off in Brighton with an extended run at the Theatre Royal ending this Saturday 29 Sept and it is well worth carrying a watermelon to.

To be honest, my expectations for the show had been limbo-low. I expected a cheese-fest pastiche, perhaps with some added wistful solos – something light and feel-good but lacking the spirit of the original.

In fact, fans be reassured, it sticks wonderfully close to the well-loved film. I made plenty of little gasps of recognition as on-screen details made it to the stage. Yes, there are the watermelons, the pink dress, the corner, the lift, but so much more besides.

Most outfits Baby wears are instantly recognisable from the film, and indeed my own copycat wardrobe at the time! (The white jeans are missing…. but, face it, they are rarely a good idea). The set too was much more detailed than I expected for a dance-heavy production. The exterior and interior of Kellerman’s switch deftly by means of a revolving set. There’s even a slice of kitchen for the scene when Penny is found crying.

Little choreography touches in the interaction between Baby and Johnny, yes, even in the bedroom scene, are pleasingly familiar (so much so I was willing the curtain to come down before it got more steamy – stage always feeling more embarassingly intimate than film).

The attention to detail is such that even the episode where Johnny and Baby practice the lift in the water is kept in with the help of a projection – perhaps a step too far as it elicited good-natured guffaws from the audience as the pair remerged from the ‘water’ hair not the slightest bit damp.

As for the dialogue… of course the famous lines are there, and get cheers and whoops from the audience but that’s not all. “I pretty much know Dirty Dancing word-for-word and it’s just the same!” marvelled my sister-in-law – a serial DD binger – during the interval.

For many of us, Dirty Dancing is part of our DNA, for the few who don’t know, here’s the lowdown.

Idealist and cardigan-wearing Daddy’s girl Frances Houseman, known as ‘Baby’, spends summer at an upmarket holiday camp with her older sister and parents. There she encounters the backstage talents and dramas of the dance staff, in particular grumpy hottie Johnny Castle. To help out Johnny’s desperate dance partner Penny (because, for some implausible reason, none of the other dancers can stand in) Baby swiftly learns Penny’s moves for a show… leading to some horizontal dancing with Johnny and a fallout with her folks. Might some cracking twirls and a big lift save the day?

I felt some of the minor changes actually enhanced the production. The light-fingered elderly ladies have become a magician with an extra line in sleight-of-hand. A backstory about the civil rights movement has been added, giving us a bit more social context and a chance to foreground Baby’s humanitarian sensitivities. The class war elements and Mr Houseman hypocrisy also felt stronger in the production than they did in the film, which helped the story seem less lightweight.

Kira Malou was fantastic as Baby, her facial expressions and movements betraying her feelings – much harder to carry off without a camera close-up. Baby’s parents meanwhile felt a plausible 1960s couple. Friends and I agreed Johnny (Michael O’Reilly – making his professional debut) seemed to remain more rigid and thuggish-seeming than we’d have preferred – though strangely this was all forgotten when he danced, then took his top off … and err more! We also marvelled at Simone Covele’s super-fluid, leotard-clad movements as Penny.

Kira Malou, Michael O’Reilly and Simone Covele in rehearsal, photo by Alistair Muir

In fact the dancing from all cast members was excellent, even more so when you consider the stage set allows very limited space to spin about. An on-stage band, led by relaxed and cheery Colin Charles as crooner Tito Suarez, helps things go with a swing.

The show brought the audience to its feet on a Monday night and left me feeling I’d been lifted as high as Baby and I’d like to do it all again.

Dirty Dancing: The Classic Story on Stage is at the Theatre Royal, Brighton daily until Sat 29 Sept, including two performances on Fri and Sat. Tickets are from £21.90

The show is also coming to Hastings‘ White Rock Theatre Tues 23 – Sat 27 Oct.


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