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Review – Dirty Dancing (UK and Ireland Tour) – Empire Theatre

FOLLOWING a highly acclaimed run at London’s Dominion Theatre, Federico Bellone’s production of Dirty Dancing ‘The Classic Story on Stage’ is four stops into a 21 venue UK and Ireland tour as it hits Liverpool’s Empire this week. When the stage musical version of the hit movie first appeared in 2006 it broke box office records, and the appetite for it seems unabated, with tickets selling fast.

It’s sweltering both outside and inside the Empire this week, but can the action on stage match the sultriness of the weather? The short answer seems to be a resounding yes, with its moody lighting, suggestive dialogue and raunchy choreography, and a leading man who you can practically see the heat-haze rising from.

Last week we might have had one of the stars of Strictly on this stage (in Annie) but now we have the dance moves, as the action opens in the dance hall at Kellerman’s resort accompanied by hits of the ‘60s. A largely onstage band under the direction of Richard John plays with style and panache, and really sets the mood. The programme lists no fewer than 39 musical numbers, but what on paper sounds like your average jukebox musical doesn’t feel like one, because the song and dance are of course central to this story, in which Frances “Baby” Houseman  falls for the charms of the resident dance instructor Johnny Castle, much to the dismay of her stuffy parents.

The central trio of Baby, Johnny, and his ‘official’ dance partner Penny are splendidly cast in Kira Malou, Michael O’Reilly and Georgia Aspinall. The story naturally allows Aspinall to demonstrate her impressive dance ability much earlier than Malou, who has the harder job, in that she has to be convincing as a complete novice who picks up the steps by stumbling degrees. Some of her earlier routines are probably the dance equivalent of seeing Les Dawson play the piano badly – much harder to achieve than it looks when you are actually highly accomplished. O’Reilly meanwhile has plenty of style and poise to match both of them, perhaps carrying it off with a bit too much flair at times, although occasionally his face wears an expression more suited to lifting weights in the gym than a partner on the dance floor.

Whilst the weight of the show is carried by the music and dancing, the expansion of the story from a 90 minute film into two hours on stage allows for plenty of character development and the narrative is given a great deal of clarity. Both the main storyline and the sub-plot involving Penny’s pregnancy are explored with rather more depth than you might expect, and we are actually given well drawn characters who we can invest ourselves in.

Bellone not only directs this production but has also designed the set, which depicts Kellerman’s as a barn of a space painted with light, affording plenty of open stage for Austin Wilks’ excellent period-styled choreography. In addition to the 5 piece band on stage there is also a large and well rehearsed ensemble cast, who provide lots of visual interest in the set pieces as well as the big routines.

Dirty Dancing is unashamed to be exactly what it is, a boy-meets-girl story steeped in nostalgia for the 1960s, and it equally unashamedly cashes in on the sexiness of its young stars, but it is much more than that. The production values are consistently high, the performances are fully committed, and the show as a whole – unlike Baby in some of her first attempts on the dance floor – fails to put a foot wrong.

Dirty Dancing, the Classic Story on Stage is at Liverpool Empire until 17th June after which it continues touring with dates booking across the UK and Ireland until mid November.

Star rating: 5 stars

Review by Nigel Smith

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