Dirty Dancing – Bord Gáis Energy Theatre – Review
By Diana Perez Garcia
From 24 – 29 Jun 2019
Photo credit – Alastair Muir
Karl Sydow & Joey Entertainment in Association with Lionsgate, Magic Hour & Triple Entertainment Group
At some stage every critic must learn to recognise the potential impact that their review will have on the success or failure of a show: for me that lesson was starkly delivered at the Board Gáis Theatre last night at the exact point when the septuagenarian sitting directly in front of me sprang up like a Jack-in-the-box during “Do You Love Me?”, the closing number to this stage version of Dirty Dancing, and started to jive as if joining the ensemble choreography on stage. She was one in a sea of viewers spontaneously combusting into fits of swinging, cheering and clapping, delighted to finally let their feet, hips and arms do their bidding. At that point I realised that whatever I wrote today would matter zilch to the producers, backers, creative team and performers of a show that is fast selling out as we speak, which is great, because although I like my reviews to be honest, I do not want to hurt anyone with them. So it is liberating to know that if I tell you that I thought that this was a crassly conceived, witless, predictably choreographed, and poorly performed production that makes the 1987 film look like Citizen Kane, it will have no influence whatsoever at the box office.
Let me be clear, nobody should go to a stage production of Dirty Dancing expecting Hamlet, not even the graceful and slick cleverness of classic musicals; after all, its story line is best summed up as a prepubescent fantasy fairy tale and its ideal target audience is a girl (or boy) aged between 12-14 who dreams of becoming intimately acquainted with a chiselled male torso capable of speech. I ought to know, I was one of those girls when I first saw the film. Having established that, a stage production of this classic film (and Dirty Dancing is that by popular acclaim despite any restrictive highbrow definitions) should not just rely on the good will of an audience primed to erupt at lines like “I carried the watermelon” or “Nobody puts Baby in the corner”. A good stage version of a classic screen musical should pay homage to its source by delivering a live experience that replicates the strengths of the original. It should also devise a way to adapt the material to performance on stage, recognising the fundamental difference between live and filmed performance. This production fails on both counts.
One of the merits of the film was its ability to establish a sultry and slow paced crescendo to the improbable coupling of Baby and Johnny on which the film hinges. Early viewers of the film also bought its absurd premise due to the undeniable onscreen chemistry between Jennifer Grey and Patrick Swayze. These were two key elements to the successful delivery of its rudimentary sexual and romantic fantasy. This stage production fails to deliver both. This is in part due to a libretto that crams 51 songs in a running time of approximately two hours, resulting in the kind of frantic spectacle that precludes any dramatic development. Roberto Comotti’s set design has a sort of Norman Rockwell charm to it and allows for rapid changes to occur thanks to multiple locations set on revolving platforms, but it is only so many times one can take this kind of trickery when it just seems to serve headache-inducing narrative impulsivity.
Most disappointing were Kira Malou’s and Michael O’Reilly’s performances as Baby and Johnny. Malou may just about be acquitted given the pantomime broadness devised for the show by its director, Federico Bellone. She does not convey any credible awkwardness or clumsiness – key to establish Baby as a distinct character- and instead settles for an emphatic earnestness that is at times irritating. The biggest problem with the show, however, is O’Reilly’s wooden performance as Johnny. It is fair to say that the script yields little poetry in lines like “I guess it is not a great room. I bet you have a great room”, delivered by Johnny at the beginning of their first sexual encounter, but, last night, O’Reilly was incapable of injecting any of the coiled sensitive gruffness required to sustain his character. I got the impression that he was fighting an upward battle to maintain his American accent throughout and that was detracting from any ability he may have had to commit to his performance. This meant that the only primal allure he was able to convey revolved around the kind of grinding movement one may expect from a male stripper at a hen party.
To compound the problem there was no chemistry between them, not even during “(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life”, a number that, if performed with enough vim and sensuality, should disarm even the most recalcitrant grouch in the audience. It is telling that the biggest ovations of the night were in response to Greg Fossard’s likeable performance as Neil Kellerman and Lizzie Ottley’s enthusiastic and broadly comic singing of “Lisa’s Hula” in her role as Baby’s sister, rather than to any of the many numbers involving the protagonists.
A musical, no matter how clumsily acted or poorly scripted, will ultimately be salvaged, even elevated, by a strong choreography and talented dancers. Sadly this stage version of Dirty Dancing also fails at this fundamental level. Dirty Dancing depends on its welding of swing and Latin rhythms and as a result the viewers should expect a good dose of hip thrusting; it is “dirty” dancing after all. But sensuality also needs some time and air to develop and seduce and here it ended up lost in a groin thrusting Lambada inferno. Gillian Bruce seems to have developed her choreography with a Strictly Come Dancing formula in mind; crassly exploiting Baby’s faltering beginnings for cheap laughs and relying on acrobatic rather than balletic performances from some of the cast. Amongst these Simone Covele betrays her background as a can-can soloist in the Moulin Rouge in her turn as Penny Johnson. There is no doubting the merit and talent involved in her performance but they are gymnastic, not artistic.
Ultimately though, as I witnessed last night, there is a resilience to fairy tales, even if they involve topless men ripping off their vests, that seems to make them immune to clumsy retelling. Their allure resides in the simplicity of their formula. Sometimes, no matter how much it may infuriate a critic; there is no stopping an audience from having the time of their lives.
Running time: 2 hours 20 mins approx. with a 20 min interval
Frances “Baby” Houseman: Kira Malou
Johnny Catle: Michael O’Reilly
Penny Johnson: Simone Covele
Tito Suarez: Colin Charles
Dr. Jake Houseman: Lynden Edwards
Mr Schumacher: Mark Faith
Neil Kellerman: Greg Fossard
Elizabeth: Sian Gentle-Green
Marjorie Houseman: Lori Haley Fox
Max Kellerman: Jack McKenzie
Lisa Houseman: Lizzie Ottley
Billy Kostecki: Alex Wheeler
Ensemble/Vivian Pressman: Amelia Armstrong
Ensemble/Robbie Gould: Tom Bowen
Written by: Eleanor Bergstein
Director: Federico Bellone
Choreographer: Gillian Bruce
Lighting Design: Valerio Tiberi
Set Design: Roberto Comotti
Sound Design: Armando Vertullo
Live Music by: Kellerman’s Band (Kieran Kuypers, Ben Mabberley, Miles Russell)