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Dirty Dancing

by on 7 October 2021

The Time of My Life

Dirty Dancing

by Eleanor Bergstein

Karl Sydow and associates, at Richmond Theatre until 9th October, then on tour until 18th December

Review by Mark Aspen

Dirty Dancing opened its tour at Richmond, so I took my maiden aunt.  No, just kidding!  But the lady I did take with me remarked “We gals thought when Aiden Turner did the bare-chested scything in Poldark that that was pretty sensational, until now, seeing Michael O’Reilly take his shirt off”.    O’Reilly plays Johnny Castle, the heart-throb lead and, judging by a very enthusiastic audience, Dirty Dancing has quite an aficionado following, ladies of all ages, who know just what to expect.  

Mentioning this sets the atmosphere for the fast-paced, high-energy show that opens the theatre’s own autumn programme, and opens the doors of the magnificent and much-loved Richmond Theatre after over eighty weeks of Covid closure, dark days now blown away by the light and sound and life of a dynamic musical. 

Appropriately, the musical numbers start with This Magic Moment and finish with I’ve Had the Time of My Life.  As the star-dust settles from the chest-echoing start of the show, the scene is set in a holiday-park in a lakeside resort somewhere in the Appalachians, that long mountain string that points the cities of the East Coast USA towards the different world of the Deep South.  It is 1963.

The Swinging Sixties, that hedonistic youth revolution in Britain, happened in the late 1960s, but the same social and moral shift took place a little earlier in the States, when international threats and the assassination of a radical President had shaken the country’s cultural basis.  So, there is a generational change of direction in that summer of ‘63.  At Kellerman’s resort, while the older generation share recollections and exasperation, the younger generation exchange aspirations and perspiration, as they dance their way to a coming of age.

Dancing and romance are the main sources of entertainment at the resort, and the owner Max Kellerman actively encourages his seasonal waiters, students at Ivy League universities, to flirt with his lady guests.  The male dance instructors are not so encouraged, but Max turns a blind eye while these young men become gigolos for the older lady guests.  He regards them as socially inferior, but the ladies see them as desirably superior, with their impressive physiques and their accessibility in the dance classes.  The alpha plus of these dancers is Johnny Castle.  Johnny is viewed by the other young men as a rival to be reviled or as an exemplar to be envied.  The waiter Robbie Gould, one of the medical-student waiters, is an example in the first category.  He is a womanizer, but considers himself a cut above, as he is at Yale University. 

Kellerman’s, though, is a resort popular with families with teenage daughters, who come with no knowledge of its sleazy side.  Some of the older couples, however, are only too aware.  Husbands can be jealous or conversely bored with their wives.  What an emotional powder-keg is Kellerman’s holiday park!

Arriving innocently into this minefield come Dr Jake Houseman, his wife Marjorie and daughters, Frances, in her mid-teens, and Lisa a few years older for a long-awaited three-week holiday.  They come as paying guests, but honoured by Max Kellerman as Jake had successfully treated him for a life-threatening illness.  So their position is slightly compromised.  Everyone calls Frances, “Baby” and she is very much a daddy’s girl.

The dancing in Dirty Dancing is sensual, athletic, energetic, suggestive and hot.  It is, well … dirty!   The chorographer Austin Wilkes, with his decade long experience on versions of Dirty Dancing, and his team pull out all the stops.  The six strong dance ensemble are superbly supple and sinuous.  Their sequences are strongly rhythmic and assertive.   The principal dancers are O’Reilly as Johnny Castle and Carlie Miller as Castle’s dance partner Penny Johnson.   O’Reilly has a compelling intensity and precision of movement.  Miller is an outstanding dancer, fervent and sensual with an aesthetic agility.  As Baby Houseman, Kira Malou is the third principal, an accomplished dancer who has the difficult task of playing the tyro, as Baby learns the troupe’s routines, a very good dancer playing an improving dancer.  Malou managed to draw a great deal of humour from Baby’s learning process.  

Talking of Baby’s learning process, the inevitable happens, Baby falls for Castle and big sister Lisa falls for Robbie.   Most of the characters have a long emotional journey over those three short weeks, but these four perhaps more than the others. 

Johnny Castle appears to be vain and self-centred, but underneath there is a sense of unease and vulnerability.  The hint of a southern drawl suggests he may not be too comfortable with city bred licence, in spite of his casual bedding of older women.  Michael O’Reilly adds in this dichotomy in a nuanced portrayal in what might otherwise be a physical performance, enhanced by an impressive six-pack and golden underwear.   This latter costume detail drew wowed applause from the ladies in the audience, who obviously appreciate a memorable thing-thong in a musical. 

Baby is a character propelled by her likeable nature and her innocence.  There is an idealist bursting to get out, but when do her ideals become illusion?  Her journey is one of a spring awakening of her sexuality, but also of self-knowledge. “You taught me to be the person I wanted to be”, she says in the end.  Kira Malou depicts a Baby who as her dancing evolves, so does her maturity.  She throws off her spoilt-by-daddy dependency and emerges an adult.  Malou’s Baby believes in people and we believe in her.

Carlie Miller’s Penny Johnson is an almost-operatically tragic character.  Miller is not only a remarkable dancer with an amazingly supple sensuality, but a deeply empathetic actress.  One really cared for her in Penny’s downfall from vixen to victim: her distress is palpable.  She handled the tragedy of abortion and the horror of its botching with great sensitivity

Almost all are culpable in this calamity, in greater or smaller ways, and the sharing of guilt acts to unite them.

Lizzie Ottley takes big sister Lisa on an abrupt emotional journey, revelling when she manages to usurp Baby’s position as Daddy’s favourite, then being brought back to earth as she discovers that her paramour Robbie is not what she thought.  Having seen a guest Mrs Pressman (Daniele Cato) leave Robbie’s chalet, she rapidly revises her plans “to go all the way” (a very 1960’s euphemism).  James McHugh’s Robbie is suitably arrogant (and has a particularly vicious punch-up with Johnny).

Jake Houseman has a difficult holiday juggling his place as father, doctor and husband.  Lynden Edwards plays the role with an understated world-weariness, leavened by his tenderness towards his Baby.  Edwards is ill-served by the script which demands some hairpin turns in attitude … and how doting a father do you have to be to give $250 cash (equivalent to £2,000 today) to your just post-pubescent daughter without asking why?  Edwards wins though and his acting of his various family relationships, including with his bemused wife Marjorie (Jackie Morrison) is very affecting.  

Johnny’s cousin Billy is very much a go-between as relationships develop and then change.  Samuel Bailey play a very personable and chirpy Billy, and is very touching when his grave misjudgement fills him with remorse.   Bailey is a strong singer and hits a powerful falsetto high in In The Still Of The Night, accompanied by Tom Mussell’s richly resonant saxophone.

Mussell, together with Miles Russell and Ben Mabberley form the Kellerman’s Band, which is there on stage, acting along … and dancing, with an impressive array of instruments.   Musical director Richard John has done a remarkable job in seamlessly pulling together live and recorded music and song. 

Musical, and acting, highlights are brought to the party by Colin Charles as the old retainer and entertainment factotum Tito Suarez.  Charles rich voice and light footed tap had everybody wanting to boogie.  Johnny Castle would be well advised to take Tito’s advice on how to up his game.  Max Kellerman accepts Tito as his confidante and trusted business associate.

Max Kellerman’s character is not easy to crack.  Here is a man who plays his cards close to his chest.  He is however a shrewd businessman and an opportunist.   Michael Remick has Kellerman to a tee.  The heir apparent at Kellerman’s is Neil Kellerman, Max’s grandson.  Neil, as putative boss, acts somewhat as a foil to the other young men.  Thomas Sutcliffe has great fun in the part.   Neil transmogrifies from would-be mogul to zealous activist during the course of the action, going off eventually to join the Civil Rights movement down south, contrary to the advice of Tito.   This move, a desire also expressed by Baby, is another piece of weak writing.  As a sub-plot it is very tenuous and never developed.  It feels like a bit of virtue-signalling that doesn’t quite work. 

There are two rather nice, almost cameo, roles.  Mr Schumacher, although crucial to the denouement of the plot, spends most of the show larking about.  He is the sort of irritating person who keeps shouting out the answers in a pub quiz, even if they are wrong.  Mark Faith relishes the part, pulling out all the humour.     Amber Silvia Edwards, as Elizabeth, Neil’s companion, punches home a great performance of Yes.  Bubbly and buoyant, it adds one more little bit of wow.

Roberto Comotti’s set design creates the atmosphere of the lakeside resort, without fussiness.  The lighting design of Valerio Tiberi and Nick Richings bring in the zing, the sparkle that says musical.   Even the pre-set stage attracted selfies from arriving audience who wanted that I’ve Had the Time of My Life factor.

Director Federico Bellone has fashioned a memorable show to open the in-house Richmond season creating a foot-pumping musical that has all the verve and vitality to bring life back onto the stage. 

Dirty Dancing is a story about growing up and growing out, judgments and misjudgements, trust and mistrust, family ties and family tears, about the joys of life and the joys (and ptifalls) of sex.   Joy of sex?  Maybe I should have taken that maiden aunt.

Mark Aspen, October 2021

Photography by Mark Senior

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