Despite the film now being over thirty years old, it seems the appeal of Dirty Dancing is still as great as ever. Famous for its thrilling choreography and iconic characters, and renowned for its subtle yet brilliant treatment of numerous social issues, one might have thought any stage adaptation would always fall in the film’s shadow.
But the tremendous success of the Dirty Dancing UK Theatre Tour proves that the plot translates perfectly onto the stage. The fact that it sticks almost entirely to the film script, even though writer Eleanor Bergstein did add a few scenes to help embroider her original storyline, means it satisfies even the most sceptical of fans.
Director Federico Bellone and set designer Roberto Comotti combine to produce stunning staging, transporting the audience back in time to the sixties’ summer camp. This provides the perfect setting for the main attraction – no, not Johnny – the intense dance sequences. They are performed with a slickness and energy that more than does the film justice, while Baby’s lessons with Johnny are suitably charming. This middle period does feel a little rushed at times, however, with most of the dance classes being cramped into one scene, and the outdoor sessions not really being given the staging or attention to flourish. This is particularly evident when the two leading characters practice in the lake, arguably one of the most memorable scenes from the film, but the decision to lower a semi-transparent blind with waves painted onto it provoked laughter from the audience, at a moment that is supposed to be crucial in the development of Baby and Johnny’s relationship.
Kira Malou gives a vibrant performance as Baby, astutely conveying her innocence yet determination. Michael O’Reilly dazzles with his dance technique and presence, but still struggles to carry the somewhat poisoned chalice of Johnny. Perhaps unfairly, anyone playing the role will inevitably be compared to Patrick Swayze’s original performance. Swayze gives the character a charm that O’Reilly’s portrayal lacks, making Johnny appear arrogant in places as opposed to charismatic. Both of the lead’s dances flow beautifully, though, and they allow their flame to flicker brightly enough for the audience to empathise, without making their romance come across as trite. A notable mention must be given to Alex Wheeler and Sian Gentle-Green, playing Billy and Elizabeth respectively, whose vocals provide consistent moments of class throughout the show, and serve to light up the finale.
The production is undoubtedly fun and vivacious, jerking the audience along every twist and turn (of which there are many) almost as aggressively as Johnny’s mambo hip thrusts, making the two acts rattle through like a whirlwind. Even though most of the audience will probably know how Dirty Dancing reaches its resolution, you never feel bored, or anxious for the curtain to close. If anything, you wish it could last a little while longer, and are grateful for Bergstein’s decision to add a few extra scenes. The plot becomes too convoluted in places, and it becomes difficult to follow the storyline of each character, briefly reminding the audience that this is a script designed for the cinema and not for the stage. The story is still riveting, though, and does not lose any of the drama or emotion in translation.
Dirty Dancing at Oxford’s New Theatre doesn’t aim too high, sticking religiously to the original script, but in doing so satisfies original fans, whilst no doubt enchanting the next generation to ensure the magic of Dirty Dancing continues to be passed on year after year.