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Review: Dirty Dancing at Liverpool Empire ***

Generations of romantics have had the time of their lives watching Dirty Dancing, whether it be the original 1987 film or, over the past 15 years, its hugely successful stage sibling.

And along with star-crossed lovers Johnny Castle and Frances ‘Baby’ Houseman there’s a third key member of the cast - the audience, whose often very vocal love affair with the show has helped make it a theatrical phenomenon.

That current of excitement and, at times, lust brings an energy and an extra dimension to the evening’s entertainment.

But while there was a night of passion and high drama unfolding up the road at Anfield, in the Empire the post-Bank Holiday atmosphere was much more muted, which in turn had a deflating effect on the overall feel of the show.

Which is a shame because there’s plenty to like about this current touring production.

The revolving set is simple but effective, the choreography is lively and, yes, dirty, and there are some enjoyable individual performances, not least from Liverpool’s Greg Fossard as well-meaning management sap Neil and Lizzie Ottley as Lisa (her Hula song is a squeaky delight), while Simone Covele is a lithe and elastic-limbed Penny, the former Rockette who finds herself in trouble with far-reaching consequences for everyone.

Dirty Dancing. Top: Kira Malou and Michael O'Reilly as Baby and Johnny. Photos: Alistair Muir

Kira Malou is a pleasingly earnest and gawky Baby, while Michael O’Reilly, making his professional stage debut, has some nifty footwork, the physique to elicit wolf whistles and the look of a young Christopher Reeve.

There’s a lack of discernible chemistry between the two of them however, and the late-night, post-Sheldrake seduction scene where they finally get together is rather rough and awkward, while the burgeoning relationship isn’t helped by the production’s relentless whisk through a succession of short scenes.

Eleanor Bergstein wrote both the film and this stage version which for the most part sticks faithfully to the plot and the original dialogue.

There are times it suddenly goes off piste, but these passages – including a sub-plot about the Civil Rights movement and riding the freedom buses – are really just a distraction from the central story. At one point, Baby starts shouting incoherently about cheese sandwiches. No, me neither.

It’s a story that, as all Dirty Dancing devotees know, comes to a glorious crescendo at the Kellerman’s end-of-season showcase where nobody, NOBODY puts Baby in a corner.

O’Reilly’s unexpected entrance for this final scene is certainly a crowd-pleaser, and it energised the Empire audience who greeted his arrival with a roar of appreciation – which continued through the ensuing dance and reached a zenith as he not only lifted Malou’s Baby aloft in the show’s signature move, but turned her through what appeared to be an effortless 360 degrees above his head to boot.

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