‘I like that Johnny, he ticks a few boxes.’
That was one woman’s verdict on ripped Michael O’Reilly who plays the hero of this musical version of the classic kitsch movie, and evidently shared by someone who wolf whistled at the start when he merely sauntered onstage wearing his shades.
In fairness to the talented O’Reilly he’s far more than just a six pack as he brings the required swagger and some strong dancing to Johnny who is the moody dance instructor at an early sixties American holiday resort. It’s no spoiler to anyone familiar with film history to reveal that privileged holidaymaker Baby falls in love with the muscled blue-collar dancer.
The musical is pretty much a scene by scene recreation of the movie that at heart is a coming of age story at the end of the golden Eisenhower era and just before America descended into chaos. You can be a musical purist, and want something new, or just accept that people have paid good money to wallow in a love story that means so much to them.
Along the way there’s tons of sixties hits, and the anthemic closing number (I’ve Had) The Time of My Life which won an Oscar, plus energetic dancing from a talented ensemble. They even have a go at the pivotal lake scene where Johnny and Baby practice lifts in the water, but the special effect isn’t so special.
For an often funny and seemingly lightweight show Dirty Dancing touches on racism, class and a backstreet abortion, which all seem relevant given what is actually happening right now across the pond. It’s also one of the very rare musicals where the leads don’t randomly burst into song, leaving the heavy lifting to a small band who wander on and off. They’re ably assisted by the strong voice and charisma of Colin Charles as veteran camp entertainer Tito.
There’s plenty of money onstage as this is a big cast led by O’Reilly who as well as subtly exploring the vulnerability behind Johnny’s machismo is a snake hipped dancer bouncing off the idealism of Kira Malou’s feisty but naive Baby. Credit to Malou who masters the tricky art of dancing badly as Baby finds her groove when she’s clearly highly trained, before pulling off the iconic lift at the end as the audience goes wild.
Daisy West is making her stage debut on this tour as troubled hoofer Penny, and as well being the best mover onstage brings real humanity to the role.
Sometimes watching this show can feel like being at a massive hen party, and the Bradford audience were certainly up for it with an audible ripple of excitement when O’Reilly first takes off his shirt. In fact, a few women on my row were fanning themselves at the interval.
A full house on opening night suggests this high-quality production will run and run as it understands that because people have fond memories of what the movie means to them, then if it ain’t broke then don’t fix it, and just give people what they want.
Dirty Dancing is at Bradford Alhambra until Saturday 14th October. To book 01274 432000 or www.bradford-theatres.co.uk
Reviewer: Paul Clarke
Reviewed: 10th October 2022
North West End UK Rating: