Adam Bruce, United Kingdom Critic
Since its success in 1987, ‘Dirty Dancing’ became a cultural phenomenon when it was released to cinemas worldwide. Its timeless coming-of-age narrative, which also tackled issues of class, loyalty and family, has meant that its continued success has continued to endure. In 2004, the film was adapted for the stage – but would this, like many modern screen to stage adaptations, be just another show trying to ride on the coattails of its filmic predecessor and fail to add anything to its legacy? I headed to the Leeds Grand Theatre to catch the UK revival on its national tour to find out.
In case you’re unfamiliar with it, ‘Dirty Dancing’ takes place at the fictional Kellerman’s Resort in Upstate New York during the summer of 1963. Whilst on vacation with her upper class family, Baby Houseman (Katie Eccles) meets Johnny Castle (Michael O’Reilly), a working class dance instructor from the city. When Johnny’s dance partner Penny (Millie Hood) falls pregnant to one of the other resort members, Baby comes in to learn the steps for the upcoming dance competition and finds herself falling for Johnny on a journey that has her questioning the world she’s been brought up in.
Theatre is incredibly generous in the amount of storytelling opportunities it gives to companies, and it’s a real shame when a screen to stage adaptation is nothing more than a flat rendering of the original story it’s trying to tell. Thankfully, however, this production of ‘Dirty Dancing’ is the furthest thing from a flat rendering possible. With the film’s original writer Eleanor Bergstein having adapted the story, there is a constant sense of respect to the original film and an even greater sense of moving its artistic legacy further forward; Bergstein expands on the original characters, adds in new scenes, and offers a truthful adaptation that allows plenty of interesting directorial choices for director Federico Bellone to work with.
Amidst Roberto Comotti’s simple yet stylish and sophisticated set design, Bellone’s directorial vision takes flight and truly soars. Kellerman’s Resort is brought to life with minimal set pieces and plenty of detail to populate the play-world inhabited by the characters, and Bellone scales the action perfectly to fit the space without anything feeling shoehorned into a theatrical setting. Gillian Bruce’s beautiful choreography is placed at the heart of the production, and the power, theatricality and emotional power of dance takes centre stage in an adaptation that absolutely feels at home in a live, theatrical context.
Bringing Bruce’s choreography to life is the exceptional company of performers, whose tireless energy and dedication to telling the revered ‘Dirty Dancing’ story constantly shines as the production unfolds. There is a sense of progression in each of their performances, and their portrayals develop with the same atmospheric sense of drive that permeated throughout the original film; it’s this progression from each member of the company that draws the audience in and encourages them to invest in each of their journeys. With powerful vocals dripping with emotion and dances that embody the period feel of the play-world and the journeys of each character, the performative aspects of this production of ‘Dirty Dancing’ are incredible. Everything feels organic, truthful and connected, and as a result, the events of the evening take the legacy of ‘Dirty Dancing’ to new heights on build on Bergstein’s original story with flair and finesse.
It’s that aforementioned sense of connectivity and awareness of theatre’s storytelling opportunities that really nails it for me with this production. Bellone’s decision to incorporate the Kellerman’s Resort band into the heart of the action, with additional musicians performing offstage, is a wonderful decision. The actor-musicians onstage feel comfortably integrated into the proceedings and add to the layers of theatricality inherent within the production, and the music doesn’t feel like an afterthought or a necessity; instead, it feels like a harmonious part of the production and adds to the atmospheric intensity of this brilliantly executed piece of theatre. The scenography assists in generating this atmospheric intensity, with Valerio Tiberi’s lighting design focusing the action and enhancing the emotional resonance of the piece and working excellently with Comotti’s set design to draw the audience further into the play-world.
This production of ‘Dirty Dancing’ is truly remarkable, and one of the best things I’ve had the privilege of reviewing. It has an astounding sense of truth that enhances the legacy of its filmic predecessor with respect and a renewed sense of excitement. This adaptation doesn’t ride on its source film’s success or cheaply reproduce it in a theatrical setting to make a quick bit of money, but instead, it triumphs as a piece of feel-good masterpiece that deserves not to be missed.
‘Dirty Dancing’ is at the Leeds Grand Theatre until 17th August. For more information, tickets and a full cast & creative list, visit https://www.dirtydancingontour.com/