Dirty Dancing The Musical is on stage at The Festival Theatre Edinburgh this week (Monday 4th to Saturday 9th March), and it is obviously bringing back many warm memories for the original audience of the 1987 hit film starring Patrick Swayze as Johnny Castle and Jennifer Grey as Frances "Baby" Houseman. The younger audience members may be associating more with the 2017 USA television film. For any Patrick Swayze fans, this must be an almost heavenly time for them as last week the Festival Theatre also had “Ghost The Musical” on stage (a completely unconnected performance to this one).
Our story here is set in one of the busy hotel resorts of the Catskill Mountains where many New York families used to spend their summer vacations, and set to a soundtrack of music from the period with great songs here including "Maybe” (The Chantels) always sounding like a close version of “Unchained Melody” to me, “These Arms of Mine (Otis Redding) “Wipe Out” (The Surfaris), “Duke of Earl” (Gene Chandler) and “You Don’t Own Me” (Lesley Gore) to name but a few. The music of course is not all from the early 1960s and “(I've Had) The Time Of My Life” still appears to be as popular as ever with people. With everything coming together, this is a “coming of age” story that the Housemans will never forget.
Dirty Dancing The Musical has the always difficult job of transferring a story from screen to stage, and overall it does the job very well here and with a mixture of a script close to the original film, good music and dance routines plus some slick scene changes on set the story line is always moving along well. Despite having all of these plus points going for it though, this production has more than a few problems and perhaps one of the biggest problems is what is also its biggest success - the dancing. There is nothing wrong with the dancing here, it is done well and it is what the vast bulk of the audience are probably here to see, but it overshadows everything, and leaves us all too often with a story revolving around “that big dance lift” and the classic line "Nobody puts Baby in a corner”. This is a problem for me as there is a real story here between Johnny Castle and Frances "Baby" Houseman which has enormous potential to explore in more depth as two people from two very different backgrounds meet and come together. Something here is just not connecting properly and I am not too sure exactly what it is.
Perhaps part of the problem is that somewhere along the production, the decision has been taken not to explore in any depth our two central roles as people and that is a pity as dance-pro Johnny Castle in particular has many different layers to him and the Johnny Castle that Michael O'Reilly gets to portray on stage is almost a one dimensional cartoon. Yes, the moves are there, but there is all too often a “one voice and emotion” fits all scenes portrayal here. To be honest, I don’t know if this is “as directed” or not, so it is not fair to give Michael O'Reilly all the blame here. To a lesser degree, Kira Malou also has a similar problem with her role as Frances “Baby” Houseman. Wherever the issue lies, the result is that what should be a great story about two people from very different backgrounds meeting and falling in love has so little emotion between the characters that it is hard to believe in the fairy-tale all too often. For some reason too, that very hard to find razor’s edge between sexual self-confidence and arrogance is not there in Johnny Castle this time, just the dance moves.
There are many references here to Black Civil Rights Movement events elsewhere in America, but they never seem to come together, and given what Frances “Baby” Houseman wants do do with her life (eventually join the Peace Corps) this is strange. The harder hitting issue of an unwanted pregnancy for one of our cast also seems to move on a little too quickly with a surprisingly quick recovery time. We are in 1963 and that is sometimes not evident in our story line and I am not sure that the Houseman Family’s discovery of what “Baby” has been doing behind closed doors would have got such a casual response at the time.
Still though, at the end of everything, this is a fantasy story targeting a particular audience demographic (as was the original film), and not a social realist drama. Dirty Dancing is however running hard to stop a time-bomb exploding as I wonder how well known many of the 1960s songs are to a younger audience. Even the 1980s one are over 30 years old now (how did that happen?). At the end of it all though, this show, from the applause tonight, delivers what its audience expects it to deliver. It is a good story, but it has the potential to be a far better one.
Review by Tom King