Dirty Dancing, Waterside Theatre, Aylesbury ★★★

Reviewed for The Reviews Hub:

It is a safe bet that the vast majority of the audience for Dirty Dancing, as hinted at by its subtitle of The Classic Story on Stage, is familiar with the original 1987 film. This is probably the reason for the stage version’s attempt to adhere so rigidly to the script and scene structure of the original, rather than tweaking it to take advantage of theatre’s different relationship with its audience. For Dirty Dancing is not so much a stage adaptation as it is a transcription.

Telling the story of the Houseman family’s 1963 summer vacation in an upstate country resort – with its organised activities and entertainments, the impression is of a Butlin’s for the New York rich – the central plot revolves around the family’s youngest daughter, ‘Baby’ (Katie Hartland) and her growing relationship with bad boy dancer Johnny Castle (Lewis Griffiths). And it is this romance which, thankfully, works most completely and satisfactorily. Hartland is superb as the headstrong girl who blossoms into a young woman over the course of a summer, and her progression from clumsy klutz to accomplished dancer is handled with finesse. It takes real skill for a dancer to appear unpolished, and Hartland sells Baby’s improvement with utter believability.

Griffiths is an effective partner to her, perfectly nailing both Johnny’s Latin dance moves and the insecurities he only shows to Baby. Similarly, Carlie Milner makes his troubled dance partner Penny into a fully rounded character, as well as an impressive dancer. The show dances by her and Griffith, though rare, illustrate the quality of the dance work on stage.

And that scarcity of dance hampers the show as a whole. Again as a result of adhering rigidly to the original screenplay, the  sequences in which the full dance ensemble can show off their skills are few and far between. When they do occur – such as Baby’s first encounter with the off-duty staff’s after-hours party – there is a sense that the dance is on stage for the duration that it appeared on film and no more. One yearns for a routine to break out into a full dance number from start to finish, for the story to be complemented and enhanced by the talents of its onstage actors. Instead, we get a presentation style that smothers potential with slavish adoration of the source material.

Such obsessive adherence to the film also restricts the appeal of the theatrical show’s use of music, which chops up songs – like the film’s soundtrack, a mix of 1960s tunes and anachronistic 1980s pop – to act as a backdrop for the succession of needlessly abrupt scenes. As a copy of cinema’s ability to transition from scene to scene with quick jump cuts, action jumps around continuously, the play’s central set (the main house of the Kellerman’s resort complex) spinning more often than some of the show’s dancers. And that removes the potential for some of the show’s smaller characters – notably Lizzie Ottley as Baby’s sister Lisa – to shine as effectively as they could. Ottley’s performance of an excruciatingly bad hula in Act II displays a kookily comedic side to her character that would lift the whole show if it were present throughout, and make her heartbreak over her dastardly boyfriend all the more heartbreaking.

Things do pick up in Act II, with cast members Michael Kent and Daniela Pobega taking on singing duties that feel more originally theatrical, alongside the diegetic singing of Jo Servi’s crooner Tito. There are hints there of how Dirty Dancing could have been adapted to take advantage of the stage without sacrificing its ready-made audience’s affection for the film. As it is, while it will provide an entertaining night out for undemanding audiences looking for a reminder of a beloved film, nobody should ignore that they are being short-changed in terms of a theatrical experience.