When Dirty Dancing, the film, first released in the summer of 1987, The New York Times declared that it was “a metaphor for America in the summer of 1963 – orderly, prosperous, bursting with good intentions, a sort of Yiddish-inflected Camelot.” As a West-End theatre production, it is much the same but with a certain sense of nostalgia that can be felt only from crossing the threshold of the new millennium. It is a reminder of the cultural reset the film created, becoming the first film to sell more than a million copies for home video, and how much theatre needs this cultural reset now.
Frances ‘Baby’ Houseman (Kira Malou) belongs to a suburban middle-class family – she is smart, virtuous and high-principled. During a holiday with her family at a resort, that screams all-American conventions, she meets dance-instructor, Johnny Castle (Michael O’Reilly). Appearing on stage with a leather jacket, sunglasses and broad footballer’s shoulders, he’s a rousing heartthrob. The two engage in a libidinous, Shakespearean romance that proves to be a sexual awakening for Baby, who is changed from being the doting daughter whose father’s trust know no bounds. The conflict between the two most important men in her life – Johnny and her father – takes centre stage in this romantic story of summer love.
Dance is the language of love in this masterpiece production, that is able to communicate lust, playfulness, frustration and innocence. Malou’s thighs wrapped around O’Reilly’s thrusting hips break her character’s mould as a good-girl, whilst Johnny’s bad-boy reputation is tempered by his patience and sensitivity as he teaches her to dance.
The show would not be complete without the original film soundtrack which includes favourites such as “Hungry Eyes” and “(I’ve Had) The Time Of My Life”. Audience members (who had noticeably imbibed) couldn’t help but sing along, and even leave their seats to stand up and clap along to the beat. These musical hits are matched by dynamic choreography that dazzles the audience.
Patrick Swayze undoubtedly left many fans flustered at the sight of his adonis body, and his thick, windswept hair. O’Reilly carries the torch to take on the burden of being adored to the sound of applause and shrill cheering. His topless scene required the cast to take a notably long pause for the the whooping, clapping and whistles that came from the uninhibited audience.
Roberto Comotti, who is responsible for the superb stage design, has ensured to maintain the saccharine aesthetic of 1960s, small-town America. The porch at the front of the house, for example, frames the essence of middle-class suburbia; the place where heartfelt conversations are had; long evenings are passed with iced teas and blankets; the exhilaration of young love is enjoyed as a kiss is stolen before sneaking back home. In the iconic scene where Johnny teaches Baby how to do the lift in their dance sequence, floating in a lake, a screen is used from where the two actors perform this intimate scene. The translucence of the screen gives this scene an otherworldly effect, reflecting on the spellbinding magic of true love. Baby clumsily falls into the water as Johnny hold her up high during the lift, with the sound effect of a splash indicating this. The tiered arrangement of the set, where stairs lead up to the highest point of the stage, also provide a dynamic stage set that gives the illusion of ample space and provides a much more exciting view of the stage.
Dare I say it? I had the time of my life! With its vibrant choreography, palpable chemistry and sexual tension between our leading stars, and tightly woven performance where there isn’t a dull moment to be had, Dirty Dancing will lift you up as if you were Baby in Johnny’s arms.
Dirty Dancing will be running at the Dominion Theatre until 16th April.
Find out more and get your tickets here.