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Brighton Year-Round 2021

Dirty Dancing

Karl Sydow and Lionsgate, Magic Hour, and Triple A Entertainment

Genre: Adaptation, American Theater, Dance, Live Music, Mainstream Theatre, Storytelling, Theatre

Venue: Theatre Royal, Brighton


Low Down

Federico Bellone’s direction is given to resident director Russ Spencer. Austin Wilks’ choreography is consummate and here thriving in a tight space. Roberto Commotti’s set reinforces storytelling and give us the film’s atmosphere transformed into a live show, working with Valerio Tiberi’s and Nick Riching’s lighting. Armando Vertullo’s sound is punchy enough. Conrad Helfrich’s music supervision is taken up by Miles Russell who leads Tom Russell and Ben Mabberley: all provide viscerally live brass and keys. Jennifer Irwin provides vivid costumes. Till September 11th and touring.


Three years on it’s back at Theatre Royal Brighton – with many of the original cast, the leads posting heartfelt tributes to both theatre freedom and – in one case – people left behind last year.

The shock success of Eleanor Bergstein’s 1987 film Dirty Dancing is again repeated here in a production that thrills from its wonderful set to – inevitably – its dancing. And singers too. There’s a presence in this latest tour that’s snappier, tighter, even more emotionally present than in 2018.

Karl Sydow and now Lionsgate, Magic Hour, and Triple A Entertainment have developed an originally modest offering of a coming-of-seventeen dance film set in 1963 into a starry spectacle that’s tight, exciting and fast-paced with wondrous set dissolves to go with fleet acting and… that lift.

Federico Bellone’s direction is given to resident director Russ Spencer and it’s a privilege after so many Spartan sets and black-floored musicals on the cheap to report the qualities of Roberto Commotti’s set which do so much to reinforce the storytelling and give us the film’s atmosphere transformed into a live show, working seamlessly with Valerio Tiberi’s and Nick Richings’ lighting, here slightly re-jigged for this new tour.

If you don’t know the film there’s very little you’ll miss, though there’s one point underwritten. And there’s some additional scenes. Finally, there’s a piece of dialogue at the end clipped from the film’s final cut that’s rightly restored here. Armando Vertullo’s sound is punchy enough though for the Theatre Royal so overwhelming it shudders up your legs.

Conrad Helfrich’s music supervision extends to three band members recessed when the Kellerman’s hotel interior lies exposed. Miles Russell, Ben Mabberley and Tom Russell provide viscerally live brass and keys, sounding both intimate and big-band in a barline.

Austin Wilks’ fresh choreography for this new tour is consummate though star dancer Carlie Milner’s Penny Johnson dances so dirtily in her first number you wonder that anyone could be shocked later on. Milner’s exceptional, with the most wicked legs on stage. What’s striking is how much the dancers manage on the slightly cramped stage. They make it look effortless and you never get a sense anything’s been crimped  for it.

Wilks is particularly good at suggesting Baby’s staging-posts from fumbling to competent then thrilling dancer. Though Kira Malou’s Baby is exceptionally apt at this. Everything the core couples or ensemble take onto the stage is high-energy, high-voltage sexiness. Jennifer Irwin provides vivid costumes particularly for women, flame orange, fuschia pink, intense blues and emeralds, and for Johnny a cutaway ripple-maxing black shirt.

Visually it’s a joy too. The Kellerman hotel is solidly realized and on a revolve spins to an interior dance space. Stage right and left there’s two sets of shrub-environed dwellings: the professional dancers’ dive up a flight of steps – seen later in scene changes with a Müller and occluding part of the central panel. And stage left there’s a holiday chalet where the Houseman family disappear. It’s a beautifully-tooled affair, but that’s before the video (also Bellone) projects everything from pelting rain through deep forest with that log rolling two dancers, and finally a lake where again our central couple cavort practising their lifts. And those splashes. There’s even car headlamps at one point.

After a Baby boom – Kira Malou’s returning as Baby Houseman again seems suddenly tripled behind the gauze as singer Elizabeth – Amber Sylvia Edwards –  bursts forth with Billy Kostecki – we’re at Kellerman’s. By 1963 the prospect of late teens holidaying with parents is, as Jack McKenzie’s Max Kellerman notes, dying on its feet.

Time for new feet and (like Malou returning to the role) Michael O’Reilly’s Johnny Castle, leader of the professional dance pack who romance the married women like studs and teach teen girls to dance. They’re prey for the Harvard-vacationing waiters like James McHugh’s Robbie, medical student predating on Penny, getting her into trouble and cruelly discarding her.

Despite Kellerman’s lip-service to Martin Luther King and Civil Rights (we get an audio clip, here refined as a portable radio) sending grandson Neil (Thomas Sutcliffe) to Alabama, it’s clear the racial and class bars are hidden. Another returning cast-member Colin Charles as Tito Suarez is a fresh figure not prominent in the film. He’s Kellerman’s Number Two, sceptical of college kids going to Alabama and finally admonishing Castle for not trying hard enough as a dancer. It’s a courageous attempt to update what thirty years later might seem a platitudinous nod, though in truth an optimistic one.  Charles has some outrageous numbers, and nails Suarez as character and above all singer. He deserves his standing ovation.

Into this melee of change come the Housemans: Baby, her sister goofy supremo Lisa (Lizzie Ottley, another returning to role) and parents Lyndon Edwards’ Jake, an MD who thinks Robbie’s a nice kid. I’d forgotten Edwards had a fine brief solo, memorably taken here. Edwards seems a touch laid back at the start though hardens till near the end. Jackie Morrison’s Marjorie who joins him in a duet is given more agency than the film.

This production allows a little more fleshing out altogether, so Ottley can show off an embarrassingly silly shimmy and  sharply off-key voice (perfectly in tune), and more interplay between the parents – Marjorie comes over as more worldly and sympathetic, which doesn’t happen till the final final frames.

And Edwards is challenged more by her too in his gruff but warm avuncularity alternating with pained silences as his dream of daddy’s favourite girl dissolves with Baby’s womanhood. Indeed one additional sequence has the grateful Penny offer dance lessons to the Housemans and reveal her secret to Marjorie. Not in the film they work perfectly here.

All the big lines zing through and the audience love ‘I carried a watermelon’ as Baby’s introduced via Johnny’s brother Samuel Bailey’s Billy Kosteci (Castle’s a stage name) to the denizens of secret dirty dancing, and the narrative millions know unravels. Bailey with Amber Sylvia Edwards and of course Charles are the superlative singer trio of the evening. Charles enjoys two solos, the others one each, very differently perfect: ardent teen crooner and smouldering blues.

Penny’s pregnant though this wasn’t flagged up properly in the last tour, coming across as telegraphic. It’s slightly clearer after the event. A newcomer might wonder why Baby’s off to baby-father refusnik Robbie. He recommends the quasi-fascist übermensch-extolling The Fountainhead as a good read. It’s now a touchstone of the alt-right. Less over here know of Ayn Rand, preacher of the creative few being held back by the drossy 99% of humanity, much beloved of Osborne, Cameron, Gove, Javid, Sunak and Republicans. But for Americans it tells us Robbie’s the opposite of those who work in the Peace Corps (like the reluctant Neil).

You can tell how a terrific production somehow tunes into events. The Peace Corps aims at stopping voter suppression of black and minority groups, known as The Alabama Method. And then there’s Penny’s abortion. That Rand group cited above are pushing through what most see as voter suppression over here inspired by The Alabama Method; and in Texas abortion has just become mostly illegal.

We’ve seen Milner dance by now and she’s sensational, rippling and curving like a kind of silken S, sexy and striking. O’Reilly has to be as good and to the excitement of many he strips blissfully well. Laughter and wolf-whistles almost drown the show when more than his six-pack bursts forth, He’s a tremendous dancer, chiselled-looking, an immaculate mover with enormous energy and a grace to manage small gestures. He can act too, though his voice can bass-baritone to Patrick Swayze levels a little intensely for his miked-up voice.

He partners Milner like a dream, and the superbly hesitant wrong-footing Malou, well like a different kind of dream. Their gradual sizzle as they practice the dance to take over from an indisposed Penny at another hotel, is one of the highlights – and all the videos of thunderstorms, logs, forest and deep lakes fly by in a feast of video projections. We cut with lighting and different costumes through Baby’s ascent into competent then good dancer. Cometh the hour she’s excellent but doesn’t of course manage that lift; yet.

The plot whereby Dr Houseman has saved Penny but thinks Johnny’s responsible, and Johnny being blamed by a slighted woman (whose husband offered him money to sleep with her) is worked through deftly. The Pressmans urbane Benjamin Harold and vampy Daniele Cato aren’t expanded on here and Cato’s exit isn’t quite the flounce writer Bergstein herself made of her own cameo part, though she moves slinkily and you wish she could be used more. Returning Mark Faith’s Mr Schumacher is given a solo dancing comedy spot though, and a nifty role in another kind of lift altogether, out of pockets; neatly signposted.

The great love scene closing Act One is another of Wilks’ triumphs. Naturally the appalling Kellermans closing ceremony with its stiffs and stuffed shirts giving way to an explosion of sex is more viscerally handled in a small space than even the film.

The climax and how it’s handled you’ll have to see. But for those wondering if this was just a holiday romance will find answers in that restoration of dialogue. It’s a fitting heart-warming climax to a dream of  production. And a surprise to those who think they know the film.

Above all Dirty Dancing is even more memorable than its 2018 incarnation. It’s not just the new elements, though these contribute: it’s freshness, love of story, theatre, putting heart soul and perhaps tribute to loved ones in that makes this so special.