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Dirty Dancing

Spectacular stage version of classic romantic movie
Photo credit: Alastair Muir

December 5, 2018
That was the summer of 1963…

Those first few beats of Be My Baby provoke such a strong reaction in me, taking me back to the days where VHS video cassettes were the height of technology and Dirty Dancing was practically on a loop as Patrick Swayze gazed down at me from his glossy poster next to my bed. I was the perfect age to fall in love with the romance of the film, even if I was slightly too young to grasp some of the more raunchy references and the changing times that serve as the backdrop.

This new tour of the Dirty Dancing stage show once again brings the classic story to the stage. With a magnificent moving set that cleverly and efficiently evokes the main scenes of the film, whether that’s in the main ballroom, the staff quarters or the iconic front of Kellerman’s hotel itself. Smoothly shifting and opening up to give the impression of our cast wandering through the hotel complex, the set made the stage seem infinitely more spacious than it actually is. Add to that clever lighting and the brilliant use of a screen in front of the main players for the external ‘lift practice’ scenes, first on a tree trunk and next in a lake, and the summer of ’63 is created. I’m not sure that the lake scene was supposed to be as funny as our audience seemed to find it, but there were rather more giggles as Johnny and Baby ‘bobbed’ up out of the water than I, and possibly the cast, expected.

While the set and technical aspects of the show may be impressive, it is the talent of the cast combined with the magnificent soundtrack that really set the stage alight. While initially, I felt that some of the dialogue (mostly lifted straight from the film) was being rushed through, the performers soon settled their first night nerves and relaxed into their well-known characters. I can imagine it is difficult playing such loved characters and delivering lines that the audience know so well; the cast need to make it dissimilar enough to differentiate the show from the film, but not so much that it alienates fans of the original. A tricky balance, but one that this cast managed, in my opinion. Certainly, the audience at last night’s performance were loving the show.

The chemistry between Kira Malou and Michael O’Reilly (Frances 'Baby' Houseman and Johnny Castle) was electric, their story developing from that awkward child-like crush into full-on romantic lust as smoothly as the set that moved around them. But it was the dancing that enthralled me the most. Simone Covele, playing Penny Johnson, was outstanding. Her dancing throughout the show was second to none, but it was the Hungry Eyes scene where she is helping to train Baby that had the audience spellbound. Silence fell (and this audience were pretty rowdy!) as she strutted onto stage, clad only in a skin-tight leotard, legs up to the skies and the most perfect bottom I have ever seen. The ticket price was worth this one scene alone. Her moves are almost otherworldly: combine that with the physique of O’Reilly (my my, those arms!) and the sexual tension in the air, and I’m sure I’m not the only one who was left speechless.

While Covele was certainly the most striking dancer among the ensemble, that’s not to detract from the other members of the cast. The choreography (Gillian Bruce) was sublime and very sexy and the ensemble and swing members seemed to make light work of the moves. The whole show was pretty raunchy, much to the audience’s delight – a glance at O’Reilly’s bottom and the whole theatre nearly spontaneously combusted!

For a couple of hours, summer came to a wintry December evening in Oxford and I certainly got more than a little hot under the collar.

December 12, 2014

I was lucky enough not only to get tickets to see this show (I was obsessed with the film) but also to interview the main three cast members AND have a little look backstage. Having never interviewed anyone before, I had some very basic questions, but they were perfectly lovely to me, despite my lack of finesse.

Having been touring with Dirty Dancing for three years, you might think Gareth Bailey (currently playing Johnny Castle) would be a little jaded with the show; just turning up, doing what’s required and collecting his paycheck. This assumption couldn’t be further from the truth. The enthusiasm for the show was palpable while I was interviewing him, and not just from Bailey, but equally from Roseanna Frascona (Baby) and Claire Rogers (Penny). They all clearly love what they do, and more specifically love working on Dirty Dancing.

As a fan of the film, I had high expectations of the stage show, and it didn’t disappoint. The script is almost identical, with some additional scenes relating to the civil rights movement of the time, giving the audience a wider view of the zeitgeist in America in 1963, and tying it in with the idealism and development of Baby’s character.

It was interesting to hear the cast talk about their views on the film: Rogers grew up with it, and used to recreate the dance moves with her cousin, Bailey saw it as a turning point in how male dancers were perceived – with the iconic and very masculine role of Johnny Castle, played by Patrick Swayze. And Frascona hasn’t seen it! She hadn’t seen it when she auditioned for the role of Baby, and didn’t want to influence her portrayal of the character, so is saving it to watch once she and Baby part ways.

The three actors also come to musical theatre from varying backgrounds. While Frascona did a little dancing when she was a child, she opted to study English (at St. Peter’s College, Oxford, just across from the New Theatre, strangely enough) before going on to do straight acting at LAMDA. She draws some parallels with Baby in her newness to the world of dancing, and this lends an extra dimension when you see the character mature throughout the show. She plays the part beautifully. And with the wig on bears an uncanny resemblance to Jennifer Grey.

Bailey entered the world of entertainment by taking his sister’s audition at Italia Conti at the age of 15. He immediately became friendly with a like-minded group of guys, which spurred him on in the industry and went from there. Onstage (and off, I have to admit!) he oozes charm and sex appeal, and his dance moves are almost poetic in their execution. I was completely hypnotised and had to keep reminding myself to watch the other performers too. From the wolf-whistles every time he entered a scene, particularly if he was shirtless, I don’t think I was the only appreciative audience member.

Rogers has danced all of her life, which is clear in her seemingly natural ability to throw herself around and adopt any number of flexible moves. Coming from a background of ballet and musical theatre, she moves around the stage like it’s her home.

Indeed the whole ensemble were brilliant movers. Just a handful of performers evoked a ballroom, or a backroom, full of people. The use of screens helped with this imagery, providing more depth, but the energy of the performances is what made the show so electric for me. Better than any episode of Strictly. And a lot raunchier!

I loved the positioning of the orchestra too, sometimes lit so that they were seen as the house band at Kellerman’s, sometimes subtly tucked away behind the slatted walls of Johnny’s room. But always present, and providing the heart of the show, with well-known tracks from the film such as 'Hungry Eyes', an instrumental version of 'She’s Like The Wind' (with some accompaniment from rowdier members of the audience) and, of course '(I’ve Had) The Time Of My Life', nestled alongside numbers such as 'You Do Something To Me' and 'If You Were The Only Girl In The World'. Wayne Smith’s (cousin Billy) vocal throughout was beautifully sweet, but particularly lovely on '(I’ve Had) The Time Of My Life'. And a special mention has to go to Jessie-Lou Yates (Lisa Houseman) and her hilarious performance of ‘Lisa’s Hula’ which got the biggest cheer of the evening.

The set and staging was cleverly arranged, and smoothly executed, with a central moving part that helped portray characters walking around the hotel complex, and with the simple raised platform providing the stage for Johnny and Baby’s grand finale. The genius of projecting a forest onto a screen behind which Johnny and Baby endeavour to balance on a tree trunk prompted a trickle of laughter from the audience when the image changed first to a field where they initially practice their lifts, and then to the lake. A clever way to evoke a change of location.

The audience were buzzing from start to finish, and if they weren’t already fans of the film and music, they certainly were by the time they left. The overall energy of the show is a credit to the performances from the entire cast, but particularly the three main characters – after talking to them prior to the show, it’s clear that they really care about what they are doing, and as well as wanting to do the film justice, they want to make sure the audience enjoy themselves. Well, we certainly did, and I’d highly recommend the show to anyone, whether you know the film, are a fan of it, or haven’t seen it (yet!).

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