REVIEW: DIRTY DANCING (Sunderland Empire) ★★★

Dirty Dancing

I have a confession – I’m not a fan of the film version of Dirty Dancing. But this new musical version on tour is actually quite good. Vibrant, exciting and very sensual, Dirty Dancing positively simmers with sexuality and the audience in Sunderland loved it.

The first act centres on 17-year-old Frances ‘Baby’ Houseman (played by Katie Eccles), on holiday with her sister and parents at Kellermans. Baby is about to learn some major lessons in dancing and life when she meets Johnny Castle (Lewis Griffiths). He’s the resort’s hunky dance instructor who is from the wrong side of the tracks and has never forgotten it. Johnny initiates Baby into rock ‘n’ roll (“dirty dancing” in the eyes of her uber-conservative parents) and other delights of the young and restless as he trains her to take the place of his regular dance partner Penny Johnson (Carli Milner) who has some of the most defined calf muscles ever!) when the latter, who has an illegal termination, can’t participate in the big Sheldrake Hotel Dance.

It takes a brave man to strip down to less than his boxer shorts in front of a Northern crowd but, Griffiths seems happy enough with his bare backside showing on stage and so did the audience. But aside from being a physical spectacle, his portrayal of Johnny Castle is a one of poise, and polished perfection as a dancer. Eccles journey from shy virgin to confident young woman is utterly convincing. There was palpable onstage chemistry between Griffiths and co-star Eccles which no doubt helped.

Lizzy Ottley (Baby’s sister, Lisa) gives a stand-out performance, her hula dancing and off-key singing getting the biggest laugh of the night. Samuel Humphreys pulls off an excellent Neil Kellerman, suitably awkward in his high-waisted pants and starched white shirt, combining hotel management zeal with some inelegant dad dancing.

Some of the more iconic songs are pre recorded — including “Hungry Eyes,” “Hey, Baby!” “Maybe” and “Cry to Me.” Others are played by a live on-stage band under Jo Servi’s superb direction and some, such as “(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life,” are sung by ensemble members Michael Kent as Billy Kostecki and Sophia MacKay as Elizabeth who shine through with their brilliant voices and charismatic performances almost acting like a set of narrators as the show’s vocal leads.

For this musical, the dancing must be, well, dirty, and Gillian Bruce’s choreography does not disappoint. There’s plenty of grinding, sensual stroking and swaying, with some impressive lifts to boot. And some nice effects when Baby and Johnny practice their dance moves on a log in the river, in an expansive grassy field and in a lake.

Roberto Comotti’s set is impressive in its size and versatility, using a rotund to change into many scenes seamlessly.

Of course the end is perfect with Johnny coming back for his love Baby and uttering the immortal lines (along with almost everyone else in the theatre) “No one puts Baby in the corner”.

Dirty Dancing is by no means a ground-breaking piece of a theatre, but it is clearly adored by audiences, who were whooping and clapping throughout (particularly at the iconic lift) and dancing in the aisles at the end. A wonderful party atmosphere and well worth the visit to see this iconic production on stage.

Reviewed by Lindsay Sykes
Photo: Alastair Muir