Opening with live singing and peppy (somewhat grating) American accents, this show is all set to be a classic, belting musical. Yet, it becomes clear why this has been billed rather as ‘the classic story on stage’, as we watch the cult film unfold live before us. Not quite a musical, and definitely not a play, this production marries live music with backing tracks, realistic sets with gaudy projections, and light hearted chit-chat with political discussion. But, undeniably, the dancing is the star of the show.
Lewis Griffiths, in the role of Johnny Castle, leads from the front and is the centre of attention throughout. Stepping into the dancing shoes of the late, great Patrick Swayze is a tall order, but Griffiths takes to the iconic role with sass, intensity and downright sexy thrusting. Avoiding a tacky look-a-like performance is no mean feat when hundreds of women are wolf-whistling like an overzealous hen party, but Griffiths plays a fitting tribute to the role.
Carlie Milner, who plays Johnny’s dance partner, Penny, is mesmerising, even before she reaches her leg over her head! The first mambo number between the pair is jaw-droppingly perfect; after all, it is the dancing that everyone is there to see!
Katie Eccles, as Frances ‘Baby’ Houseman is delightfully dorky and her “can’t dance” dancing achieves all the humour it deserves. Unfortunately though, she fails to connect and her passionate scenes are somewhat lacking.
This production stays true to the film that the audience clearly knows and loves, with classic lines producing whopping cheers from the crowd. However, needing to translate some pretty complex scenes to stage – namely getting changed in the back seat of a car, or practicing dance lifts in a lake – took some ingenuity. The use of projections onto a translucent screen deserves top marks for the attempt, but, in actuality, these scenes are something of a mockery, with blinding headlights and mistimed splash sound effects. Hilarious, but perhaps not intentionally so.
Quick changes and an almost constantly moving set string together a series of impossibly short scenes in a way that’s clearly intended for the silver screen. The fast pace is at once exhilarating and exhausting. Having said that, the “montage” sequence where Baby first starts to dance is perfectly translated; with some striking stage pictures, a balance of comedy and frustration, and, ultimately, some impeccable dance moves.
Uncannily like the film, yet this production pads the story out, with additional scenes providing character depth and historical context. A crass mockery of Baby’s beliefs at the dinner table is remedied by a rousing (albeit superfluous) ode to Martin Luther King, around the campfire. Unexpectedly, the stage show seems more politically-minded than the film, but I’m unsure whether this actually adds anything to the story, or just gives the dancers some well-deserved breathing space.
The live numbers from Sophia Mackay, Michael Kent and Jo Servi, light up the second act. Recorded tracks sufficed for some classic numbers, but, of an evening in the theatre, I for one like to be wowed by the sheer lung-power onstage! A live duet, onstage band and full ensemble choreography accompanies the iconic (I’ve had) The Time of my Life as the perfect end to this movie/musical hybrid.
This show is inescapably upbeat and promises a range of entertainment tactics. For those who know the film, there are few surprises in this production; but, let’s face it, for true fans, that’s half the fun!
Catch Dirty Dancing at Leeds Grand Theatre until July 29th.