Dirty Dancing is at The Festival Theatre Edinburgh this week (Mon 08 Nov to Sat 13 Nov), and as always it is simply a fun night out, and judging from the audience tonight, very much a “girls” night. As always with this show, much of the audience attention is directed towards the summer camp dance teacher Johnny Castle, performed this time by Michael O’Reilly.
This show is of course the stage adaptation of the now classic 1987 film starring Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey and it includes the big hit songs from this film including "Hungry Eyes" and "(I've Had) The Time of My Life". There are of course some classic hits from the early 1960s to fit in with the 1963 family summer vacation, which is also set against events happening in the civil rights movement of the time. There has also been a 2017 American television film remake of Dirty Dancing, but I am not sure how many people have seen that one (I haven’t).
As always, this stage production comes down to two things, whoever is playing Johnny Castle getting that delicate balance between confidence and vulnerability right (he can never be arrogant in his success with women), and whoever is playing Frances “Baby” Houseman looking like she has found the man of her dreams in Johnny Castle and making the audience believe in that too. Here both Michael O’ Reilly and Kira Malou get their characters pretty much just right, and when they are dancing together, or just even on stage together, there is an obvious chemistry there between them, and without this, this show can easily fall apart.
With so much of the focus of this production being on two people, that leaves little room for any depth of character development for anyone else and although Johnny’s professional dance partner Penny Johnson (Carlie Milner) has maybe the best “second” story line in the show, Penny is however in this production simply to dance and not to give a dramatic performance (no one is, it is simply not that type of a show). Like-wise, Frances’ family – father (Lynden Edwards), mother (Jackie Morrison) and older sister Lisa (Lizzie Ottley) have limited opportunities to shine here as their roles are really supportive ones.
Dirty Dancing is of course about dancing and there are some energetic cast/ensemble performances here, and everything is done well. What, however, lets much of this production down is the lack of any real stage set. Sorry, but placing what is little more than a basic two level structure with a door right and left of stage and a few basic back-drops/stage setting in the centre is just not enough for a production like this, and certainly not enough for a stage the size of the one at the Festival Theatre. This set is budget constrictions carried a little too far, but I can understand that getting performers back on stage after so long away maybe took consideration over the detailed and obviously expensive stage set that I have seen in previous productions of this show. This does, however, mean that when there are no big dance numbers on stage the cast are all too often moving in a lot of empty stage space and the iconic water scene of practising that big dance lift does suffer from a lack of imagination on how to achieve this on stage here.
Having mentioned my negatives over the stage set, I have to balance that up by saying that none of this seemed to matter to the audience tonight as many obviously knew every song here and I suspect pretty much every line, and everyone seems to be waiting for the return of Johnny Castle at the end of this story and his now iconic line “nobody puts baby in a corner”.
Dirty Dancing is what it is, a fun show for people to maybe travel back in time to that moment in their lives when they were watching the original movie and probably dancing somewhere to songs from it. This show is pure escapism for a few hours and there is nothing wrong with that.
Review by Tom King (c) 2021
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