Review: Dirty Dancing at the Orchard Theatre

Guest review by Debika Cutts

It is the summer of 1963 and 17-year-old Frances “Baby” Houseman is on holiday with her family in the Catskill Mountains when she meets the broody and sexy dance teacher Johnny Castle.  The classic coming-of-age love story that follows, made this one of the most iconic films to come out of the 1980s. Women all over the world fell in love with Patrick Swayze/Johnny Castle. The soundtrack generated two multi-platinum albums and the songs are loved and listened to by all generations.

The film was first adapted for stage in 2004 and has had worldwide success as a touring production, including two stints in London’s West End.

Photo credit: Alastair Muir

I  always feel a bit nervous about going to see the stage production of a film that is so well known and well loved, so was approaching this evening with slight trepidation. Can a stage adaptation capture the moments that make this cult 1987 film so special? Were we going to “have the time of our lives”? (Sorry – had to do it!)

Kira Malou is outstanding as Baby. Not only does she have the dancing skills and looks of Baby but she perfectly demonstrates the hesitant but strong nature of the character. Her initial attempts at dancing with her arms flailing about is brilliant. Michael O’Reilly certainly has the fantastic dance skills and body for this Dartford audience to appreciate, especially when he takes off his top and gives us a glance of his bare bottom!  His acting at times feels slightly wooden to my ears but I am comparing him to Patrick Swayze perhaps. He has a tough act to follow but pulls it off with great confidence and skill. The choreography flows incredibly well and the chemistry between the pair is a pleasure to watch. It is a very steamy performance and Gillian Bruce’s choreography works extremely well to ensure the dancing lives up to the name of the show!

The ensemble, sets and outfits are so fantastic and believable that as an audience member, I really felt as if I was being transported back to the summer of 1963. A kaleidoscope of colour throughout the performance – swinging, twirling, gyrating bodies, knickers flashing… I felt part of that whole mood and I could see that the audience around me felt it too.

Ex Moulin Rouge can-can girl Simone Covele as Penny Johnson deserves a special mention – her movements and flexibility are dazzling and the spins she performs are mind-boggling! And Lizzie Ottley’s hula scene as Baby’s sister Lisa is a highlight. Sian Gentle-Green’s voice as Elizabeth stands out in this performance, as well as Alex Wheeler for the iconic duet that accompanies Baby and Johnny’s final dance.

Photo credit: Alastair Muir

Classic lines such as “I carried a watermelon” and “Nobody puts Baby in a corner” are delivered to a satisfied audience and the practising of the famous “lift” in the lake has great lighting/projections which have been done cleverly. I was initially sceptical on how they were going to manage to pull that scene off, but they have.

The production has indeed stayed faithful to the film. It can be said that it is too loyal in some respects. It does feel as if the entire film has essentially been moved onto the stage, which makes it somewhat predictable for me. But perhaps that’s exactly what the audience wants judging by the reaction – from wolf-whistles to laughter, gasps of delight to clapping and dancing. I am pleased that there are a couple of welcome additional scenes which demonstrate the politics/civil rights movement of the time, including Martin Luther King’s speech. It gives the times more context.

For fans who want to see their beloved film recreated faithfully on the stage, this is certainly the right performance to come and watch. There isn’t anything ground-breaking but I don’t suppose there needs to be – the audience come away happily nostalgic and it certainly has the right feel-good factor on a cold Monday evening in Dartford!

Review: Dirty Dancing at the Orchard Theatre

It’s a show that needs no introduction. Like the movie on which it’s based, Dirty Dancing the musical has been a runaway success ever since it first opened in Australia in 2004, and continues to thrill its devoted fan base to this day (this is a show that has no need to cast TV or pop stars to bring in the crowds). Now it’s back for a brand new 2016/17 tour, directed by Federico Bellone – and while return visitors may notice a few differences in the staging, the show itself retains a comforting familiarity that pretty much guarantees its ongoing success.

Photo credit: Dreamteam Pics
Photo credit: Dreamteam Pics

For die-hard fans, there’s really very little I can say by way of review, because the show lifts almost all its dialogue, music, dance moves and even some of the costumes directly from the movie – and as long as Baby gets to carry a watermelon, and nobody puts her in a corner, there’s not much for even the harshest critic to complain about. There are a few additional scenes that seem intended to provide a bit of depth, and while there’s nothing wrong with that, the truth is nobody’s going to see Dirty Dancing to hear about freedom riding or how Baby’s parents got together; the show would have gone down just as well without any of the extra content. (Well, with the exception of Johnny flashing his bum, which I think it’s fair to say most members of the audience considered an essential and long overdue addition.)

The cast, led by Katie Hartland and Lewis Griffiths, do a great job of recreating their well-known characters in both look and personality. The dance numbers are genuinely sensational and a joy to watch, particularly those featuring Griffiths with Carlie Milner, who plays Penny. And there are strong vocals from Michael Kent and Daniela Pobega, although it does feel like the show could have given these two talented singers more opportunities to shine; most of the musical tracks are taken straight from the original soundtrack, with a full-length version of She’s Like The Wind the only noticeable absence.

Photo credit: Dreamteam Pics
Photo credit: Dreamteam Pics

Roberto Comotti’s rotating set reproduces every bit of Kellerman’s camp in all its wholesome glory (the effect marred only slightly by a distracting mechanical squeak that could often be heard even over the music), while a huge video screen is put to equally effective use for other scenes – the bit in the lake is particularly creative, drawing audible sounds of appreciation from the audience.

With Dirty Dancing, you get exactly what you’d expect: an entertaining story, familiar characters, a few steamy moments, and a string of fabulous music and dance numbers. It’s also a massive cheese fest, obviously, but the show makes no effort to gloss over that fact, choosing instead of revel in it and, if anything, take it up a notch. And we wouldn’t have it any other way.

I think it’s fair to say this is a show that will have audiences singing, dancing, swooning, and having the time of their lives (sorry, I couldn’t help it) for many years to come.

Dirty Dancing is at the Orchard Theatre, Dartford until Saturday 10th September.

Theatre round-up: 10 Aug 2015

Although I just had one theatre trip this week, you may recall I’ve been to a couple of Edinburgh previews over the past couple of weeks. And unlike some national publications that I won’t name, I honour requests to keep quiet until opening night. (I also don’t use grainy photos taken on a hidden camera phone, but that’s a whole other story.)

Anyway, since the Fringe is now well and truly underway, my reviews have been published, so I feel comfortable talking about them here. Beginning with:

To She or Not To She

I was excited to see how this one-woman show, written and performed by Emma Bentley of Joue le Genre, had turned out, after getting a brief glimpse at the Morley College scratch night a few months ago. And I wasn’t disappointed – what began as a research project into female actors playing Shakespearean characters has turned out to be a very funny yet deeply thought-provoking piece about the very current topic of sexism in the acting industry. Emma Bentley is enthusiastic and likeable, and at the same time clearly very passionate about her message; the show is evidently a labour of love and one that I feel privileged to have seen in its early stages. With plenty of in-jokes for the actors and the women in the audience, it’s a very inclusive show – and there’s a fair bit of Shakespeare fangirling too, which is never a bad thing.

To She or Not To She review for LondonTheatre1

A Fine line

The second preview was also a one-woman show, but couldn’t have been more different. Ronnie Dorsey’s new work, about the six-decade relationship between two best friends, is a moving and incredibly powerful piece. In just an hour, the story of Rita and Angie takes us on an emotional journey that covers puberty, sex, babies, infidelity, love and loss. Judith Paris gives an intimate performance as she shares one elderly lady’s rambling memories; at times it feels like the audience is intruding on a very private moment as she addresses her monologue to her absent friend. Ultimately, the play reveals itself to be much more than just an assortment of memories; it invites us to consider the different kinds of love, and the fine line between expressing our true desires and conforming to society’s expectations.

A Fine Line review for LondonTheatre1

These shows are currently being performed in Edinburgh, and I’d recommend them both if you’re lucky enough to be there.

As for my one ‘official’ theatre trip of last week…

Dirty Dancing

If the two Edinburgh previews were thought-provoking, Dirty Dancing is anything but… and that’s why we love it. Any fans of the movie will also be fans of the stage show, which I saw at the Marlowe Theatre in Canterbury, because they’re essentially the same, bar a few really minor changes. The music, costumes, props – including that watermelon – and the script are all pretty much identical, and there’s something quite relaxing about going to see a show you know so well you can quote the lines along with the actors. And yes, I’ll admit I’m still daydreaming about Lewis Kirk, who plays Johnny (with or without his shirt). It’s a feel-good show; the cast look like they’re having a great time, and it sends you away with a smile on your face… and you can’t really ask for more than that.

Dirty Dancing review

Theatre round-up

This week’s theatre

Blood Wedding (Dreamcatcher Theatre), The Bread and Roses Theatre

The Backward Fall (Penny Productions), Hen and Chickens

Consolation (Theatre Voliere), Bridewell Theatre

The Two Gentlemen of Verona / Hay Fever (Changeling Theatre), Boughton Monchelsea

Review: Dirty Dancing at the Marlowe Theatre

Sometimes you can’t beat a classic. As much fun as it is to see a brand new show, with little or no idea what emotions it’s going to make you feel… sometimes all you really want is to sit back, relax and enjoy a story that’s so familiar you can quote the script along with the actors.

There can’t be too many people of my generation who don’t at least have a rough idea what Dirty Dancing is all about. Boy meets girl, girl carries a watermelon, boy teaches girl to dance. Then they fall in love, boy gets fired but returns for a triumphant final scene which puts everything right with the world.

Dirty Dancing UK tour - Jessie Hart as 'Baby' & Lewis Kirk as 'Johnny' - cTristram Kenton

It’s a total cheese-fest, but that’s why we love it. The producers of Dirty Dancing were always on to a winner by reviving the stage production, because the movie has such a die-hard following that the theatres were bound to be full. Building on that popularity, director Sarah Tipple’s Dirty Dancing is almost an exact replica of the original version; the script, costumes, routines and even some of the actors appear to have been transported straight from Kellerman’s, in the summer of 1963. There are a few additions – references to the political situation of the time, freedom rides, Martin Luther King and the Cuban Missile Crisis – which add a little substance, and minor characters Tito and Mr Schumacher are both given a bigger role. Though none of these changes is a bad thing, the show would probably go down just as well without them; the audience is there for the story they know and love, as fluffy and insubstantial as it might be.

Dirty Dancing UK tour - Jessie Hart as 'Baby' - cTristram Kenton

Stephen Brimson Lewis’ set uses video screens to recreate the camp in the Catskills, including the iconic lake scene, and a rotating turntable, which gives the show a multi-dimensional feel and allows different stories to unfold simultaneously. In between scenes, we’re given an insight into the wholesome family fun enjoyed at Kellerman’s – sack races, piggy backs and musical chairs – in direct contrast to the far from wholesome activity going on in Johnny’s bedroom.

Leads Jessie Hart and Lewis Kirk have great chemistry; her perkiness and his intensity make for a perfect combination. Unsurprisingly, Lewis Kirk is particularly popular with the female-dominated audience; he could probably have not said a word all night and we’d all still have loved him (and his hips). Carlie Milner steps seamlessly into her stand-in role as Penny, and Georgina Castle is brilliant; her wonderfully terrible performance of Lisa’s Hula is one of the highlights of the show. Meanwhile there’s more comic relief from Kane Verrall; his Neil is much more likeable than the original character, with dance moves that are memorable for all the wrong reasons.

Meanwhile, we get to enjoy all the classic music we love – the only song I missed was the full version of She’s Like the Wind. Unlike most musicals, the majority of the numbers are performed by the supporting cast – Natalie Winsor and Matthew Colthart in particular deserve recognition; their performance of the final and best-known number, (I’ve Had) the Time of My Life, is incredible, and more than holds its own alongside the attention-grabbing dance routine.

Dirty Dancing UK tour - Lewis Kirk as 'Johnny' and ensemble - cTristram Kenton

Dirty Dancing is the ultimate feel-good show; you can’t help but leave the theatre with a smile on your face and a skip in your step. It’s a production that’s aware of, and revels in, the imperfections of the story, faithfully reproducing the characters and events that the audience want to see, and not making any serious attempts to change anything. And if it all starts to feel a bit like a hen party at times – well, there’s nothing wrong with that. I’m not ashamed to say that I whooped along with everyone else when Johnny said, ‘Nobody puts Baby in a corner’.

And because I know you’re all waiting for me to say it – yes, I really did have the time of my life.

All photos ©Tristram Kenton