That was the involuntary cry from the dark as the ripped Michael O’Reilly playing roughneck dancer Johnny Castle peeled off his shirt during one of the steamier scenes in this faithful stage version of the cult classic movie.
Like The Shawshank Redemption the celluloid version of Dirty Dancing was a box office flop, but this little B-movie earned cult status playing endlessly on digital TV making it perfect for the stage.
And Eleanor Bergstein’s book of her original screenplay has very wisely kept the live version pretty much scene for scene to the delight of a crowd really up for enjoying a cultural icon that has real meaning for them. In truth the romance between working class Johnny and privileged New York teenager Baby is the classic rite of passage piece, with some great choreography by Austin Wilks to a bunch of pre-Beatles classics, with some original tunes like the show stopping Oscar winner (I’ve Had) The Time of My Life thrown in.
Dirty Dancing can be so arch it verges on camp, but unlike when Patrick Swayze was strutting his stuff on the big screen thanks to Strictly we are now used to buff men being great dancers. Making his return to the show the chiselled O’Reilly wears Johnny’s trademark tight vest with the right amount of supreme confidence gliding through all the steps revealing the sensitive soul behind the taciturn mask. Kira Malou is another returnee to the show, and her Baby has great chemistry with Johnny as the end of her innocence in every way is a metaphor for an America in 1963 about to do the same thing.
A strong ensemble dance well, and of the many supporting roles former ballroom champion Georgia Aspinall makes a very impressive stage debut as troubled hoofer Penny.
Federico Bellone’s simple set conjured up a lost world of upscale family holiday camps like Kellerman’s that quickly disappeared as America began its first culture wars and is a deceptively idyllic setting for what is actually quite a dark piece. There’s stark class division, abortion in a world when it was illegal and a cack-handed attempt at shoehorning the civil rights movement in add a bit of depth to the schlock.
The house band wander round the stage belting out the familiar classics, which all adds to the atmosphere of a world about to change forever, sweeping Johnny who may have ended up in Vietnam, Baby and everyone else along with it whether they like or not.
And – no spoiler – the climatic final sense is still as powerful, so when O’Reilly and Malou pulled it off the audience rose to their feet as they’d got exactly what they paid for.
Dirty Dancing is at Leeds Grand Theatre until Saturday 10th June. To book www.leedsheritagetheatres.com or 0113 243 0808.
Reviewer: Paul Clarke
Reviewed: 6th June 2023
North West End UK Rating: