Talk about guilty pleasure. Dirty Dancing has been a long time coming to the Liverpool Empire, and it turns out that it provides an audience experience quite unlike anything there before.
It is a ridiculous premise; it’s not been turned into a musical like Legally Blonde or Hairspray, but is quite literally, a stage adaptation that is a word-for-word recreation of the 1980s film. Yet, for fans of the movie — it’s practically impossible to imagine what a Dirty Dancing virgin would make of it all — nights out simply don’t get more entertaining.
There’s a danger with this kind of production. Shows like this can be packed to the rafters with women on the handbag vodka, for whom the play is little more than a backdrop for an ongoing conversation (see Grease, where this reviewer once nearly got into a fight asking someone to keep their voice down). But so as long as you go prepared, the expectation of a little audience participation works hugely in Dirty Dancing’s favour.
As such it’s hard not to feel a bit sorry for Paul-Michael Jones, stepping into Patrick Swayze’s shoes as holiday resort dancer Johnny Castle and rocking the black vest in fine style. Each night, in every town, there is probably only the space between the audience and the orchestra pit stopping him being eaten alive. The sensible professional in me ponders there’s surely a Guardian Comment is Free post to be had about the absurd reverse sexism of the whole situation — but there again….*looks at picture at top of review* *sighs*
Dirty Dancing comes alive on stage, as the familiar soundtrack and corny lines weave into a lively show that it’s easy to forget all hangs on the premise of, erm, a botched abortion. Jill Winternitz is great as Baby Houseman, bringing a charm and innocence to the role that was notably different to Jennifer Grey in the film version. Aside from that, and a few short unfamiliar scenes inserted to keep the set changes flowing along, every musical cue, every gesture, dance move and quoteable line, was exactly as the movie. It shouldn’t work, but it does. Although the acting and American accents both seemed a bit wooden all round at first, once the suspension of disbelief kicked in it was impossible not to get carried away.
Among a solid cast, highlights were Emilia Williams as hilarious big sister Lisa, and Stefan Menaul as the perpetually uncool rich boy Neil Kellerman. As Johnny Castle, Paul-Michael Jones looks part Swayze, part Matt ‘Dr Who’ Smith with snakier hips, and he was wolf whistled and screamed at throughout. But, unlike similar shows, the atmosphere was friendly and fun. Singalongs and the odd shout out were welcome, if not encouraged, and the sound guys certainly knew when to turn the band down and the mics up so the big lines could be heard over the cheers (the anticipation before “nobody puts Baby in a corner” was quite palpable).
The recreation of the famous scene where Johnny and Baby dance on a log, then practice The Lift in a corn field and a lake was a fantastic technical feat of lighting and set design, and a powerful reminder Dirty Dancing wasn’t just a tacky bums-on-seats tribute show, but a well-considered, high quality piece of theatre in itself. Johnny’s entrance for the final scene, too, was great fun.
Tickets for this show for the most part aren’t cheap, but for a uniquely enjoyable night out that would win over most any cynic Dirty Dancing would be quite hard to beat. I’d have written this last night, but was watching this and crying into my pinot: