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Review: Dirty Dancing at the Liverpool Empire ****

Some of us were the same age as Frances ‘Baby’ Houseman when Dirty Dancing first merengued inconspicuously on to cinema screens in 1987.

Thirty years on, while the rest of us are staring 50 in the face and thinking ‘what the hell happened?!’, Eleanor Bergstein’s dancing ingenue remains as fresh and youthful as ever.

This latest tour of the stage musical version of the cult cinema classic is also as fresh and crisp as a new £10 note.

The narrative ticks along at a pace, particularly before the interval where all scenes lead to that moment Baby demands ‘dance with me’ and Johnny (a suitably swaggering Lewis Griffiths, channelling Patrick Swayze’s tones – and toned torso) queries ‘Wha? Here?’.

The scene in question – perhaps more explicitly and, as one audience member said to me, raunchily, played that in past productions - is a natural end to the first half. And yet annoyingly, it’s coy ‘fade to grey’ finale means it trickles rather than fizzes in to the break.

It’s 1963. Kennedy is still alive, Ed Sullivan is still to invite the Beatles on to his TV show, and the Housemans have decamped to Kellerman’s resort in the Catskill Mountains for dressing up, samba lessons, golf and gentle flirting with the ‘nice’ college boys waiting at table.

When the rather annoyingly righteous, and right-on, Baby (Katie Eccles) finds her way in to the staff quarters carrying a watermelon, her world is turned upside down by saucy-hipped dance pro Johnny.

Will love across the social divide endure? Or will the young Romeo and Juliet of the dancefloor be torn apart by circumstances beyond their control?

The show sticks relatively faithfully to the film original - if you know the dialogue you can happily tick off the key lines – while embellishing the action with extra scenes to flesh out other characters which, in all honesty, it mostly doesn’t need.

The production has lashings of energy, both in the acting and in the ever-rotating sections of scenery, and the dancing is most definitely dirty.

Eccles and Griffiths make a very watchable couple as the young lovebirds, and there are some entertaining performances around them – not least Liverpool’s own Greg Fossard as the stompily gauche and bright-eyed Neil, Lizzie Ottley as sister Lisa – whose Hula solo is a triumph, and the impossibly long-legged Carlie Milner, who brings a palpable sense of vulnerability to troubled Penny.

Visually, a scrim is used to clever effect to create a rainy forest feel (although conversely, the lake Johnny and Baby practise their jump in elicits laughter from the audience).

The second half takes various detours before finally getting to the moment every Dirty Dancing fan is really waiting for. And once we’re reminded that nobody puts Baby in the corner, the crowd are on their feet cheering and waiting for that leap of faith in to the air.

If you don’t have quite the time of your life, I defy you to go home without a smile on your face, a spring in your step, and confirmation that sometimes love can conquer all.

Dirty Dancing runs until Saturday. Tickets from the website HERE.

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