What is it about Dirty Dancing that gives it its appeal? A modest film with a non-star cast and yet its power is undeniable. The bigger question is, can that power and appeal be captured and translated into a stage version? That question was answered back in 2004 when the first stage production, written by original screen writer Eleanor Bergstein, premiered in Australia. It seems to have been on stage somewhere in the world ever since and that somewhere currently is The Orchard Theatre, Dartford – second stop on a new UK tour that runs until August 2019.
The story concerns the Houseman family on holiday at Kellerman’s resort in the Catskills and how their youngest daughter ‘Baby’ (Kira Malou) falls for charismatic bad-boy dancer Johnny Castle (Michael O’Reilly), much to her father’s concern.
As a stage show it’s a curious thing – it’s not a proper musical, in that although there’s plenty of music it’s not really featured as ‘numbers’ but is there on records, radios or performed by the house band at Kellerman’s. But it’s not really a straight play either. What it is is an almost a scene-for-scene translation of the film onto the stage. The main problem with this approach is that there are too many scenes that are too short, resulting in a regular parade of scenery and props being brought on and off (by the way – the curtain stage right at the rear from where much of the scenery is brought on needs to be kept in place better to stop it gapping to reveal the backstage area).
But the show overcomes this, partly because the audience knows the film so well and has come to see it brought to life as accurately as possible. And partly because of the strength of the performances of the two leads. Michael O’Reilly is making his professional debut as Johnny. Early on in the show I was concerned his gruff, deep-voiced macho dancer was going to be hard to like – being on stage he doesn’t have the persuasive power of the close-up to show a gentler side as afforded to Patrick Swayze in the movie. But he softens across the evening and shows growth and maturity as he learns about life and how to deal with it from Baby’s more grown-up approach. He is also a powerful physical presence and impressive dancer. Kira Malou as Baby is credible as a young girl on the brink of maturity. Her early, clumsy attempts at learning the dance numbers from Johnny are completely convincing and she gradually learns the steps and improves. For my money she’s at least as good in the part as Jennifer Grey in the film. Together they make a great couple and seem to be enjoying themselves.
The set is high quality and flexible – as it needs to be. Key scenes from the film are the dancing on the log and trying out the famous lift in the lake. These are effectively re-created using front projection. I was also delighted with Lizzie Ottley’s performance of Lisa’s Hula – one of my favourite moments in the film and given a great comic outing here. And of course the required moments (“I carried a watermelon” and “Nobody puts baby in the corner” among them) are all present and correct.
It’s difficult to know what someone who’d never seen the film would make of this show. But then it’s really meant for people who have seen the film… and who probably know most of the lines as well! Based on the reaction from the packed house at The Orchard Theatre, everyone had the time of their lives.
Dirty Dancing is at the Orchard Theatre Dartford until Saturday 6 October and on tour until August 2019.