Dirty Dancing at the Dominion Theatre – West End review
The crowd-pleasing film-to-stage adaptation is back for a third West End run!
Nobody puts Dirty Dancing in the corner. The musical is back on the West End stage for a third time, following a tour of the UK and Ireland. Based on the 1987 US film with Jennifer Grey and Patrick Swayze, it offers a breezy and playful rendition of a classic coming-of-age tale. Young woman Frances ‘Baby' Houseman (Kira Malou) has a sexual awakening after falling in love with dance instructor Johnny Castle (Michael O'Reilly) while attending a holiday resort with her parents.
Singing takes a backseat compared to other musicals, and dialogue is a bit pedestrian; the story instead taking shape through dazzling dance routines. Johnny shows Baby the moves ahead of an important dance show for which he is missing a partner. Austin Wilks provides the choreography, working with much-loved tunes including "(I've Had) The Time of My Life" and "Hungry Eyes".
The original film was hailed by fans as a subversive feminist masterpiece that celebrated the female gaze. On stage, O'Reilly is duly hunky in the ‘bad boy' role made famous by Swayze. Not only does he move well; his frequent moments of shirtlessness attract plenty of audience whoops. Milou leans into the comedy of Baby's initial encounter with Johnny on the dancefloor: wildly overemphasising every hip-thrusting move that her love interest tries to teach her.
It's refreshing to see the action prove chucklesome as well as sexy. Often, though, the couple's relationship feels less like a passionate affair and more like a professional on Strictly Come Dancing politely trying to show an amateur how to waltz. Bathos tends to infiltrate the intimate moments.
The film was set in 1963 and prone to baffling anachronisms, meaning that schmaltzy 80s romantic tropes and power ballads sometimes outmuscled rock ‘n' roll tunes and an exploration of the era's politics (an abortion subplot being an important exception). But the stage show is more interested in context, and feels richer as a result. The situation in Vietnam is considered; clips of Martin Luther King Jr are played. The character of Neil Kellerman (Thomas Sutcliffe) outgrows his role in the film as a square holiday camp student waiter trying to woo Baby, and morphs into a thoughtful civil rights activist. Baby's mother (Lori Haley Fox) is also granted a more active role, which is welcome.
At other times, the show is such a slave to the original movie script that it gallops through scenes without really pausing to show how each of these builds that all-important relationship between Johnny and Baby. One moment, the dancing pair are seen perfecting their balance atop a fallen tree; the next, they're splashing about in a lake trying out their iconic ‘air lift'. It could have been a key sequence that shows the two gaining each other's trust – but ends up more like a hasty montage.
The show is more concerned with the flashy show-stopping scenes such as the joyful ending, when a talented dance ensemble and (somewhat undermaximised) band fill the stage alongside the key performers. Fun and straightforward – in those moments, Dirty Dancing seldom puts a foot wrong.