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.
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.
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 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