[Review] Dirty Dancing The Musical at Oxford's New Theatre

By Jessica Durston - 27 July 2023

Arts and CultureOpinion and Features

This week, Swindon Link columnist Jessica Durston attended the opening night of Dirty Dancing The Musical at the New Theatre in Oxford and penned her thoughts down.

There was a definite buzz about Oxford during this week’s opening night of Dirty Dancing The Musical at the New Theatre. An extensive queue of excited fans could be seen stretching down George Street early on before the show started.

The musical has been touring since 2006, with performance dates continuing to sell out to this day - and it’s no wonder as to why. Built around the popular movie from 1987, the show tells the story of the independent and strong-willed 17-year-old Frances ‘Baby’ Houseman, who along with her family, takes a trip up to the Catskill Mountains in New York for a lakeside resort break. Whilst on this trip, she meets her match in the handsome and headstrong dancing instructor Johnny Castle. The pair begin to dance together and fall in love even though they come from completely different backgrounds, and do not always see eye to eye regarding certain issues.

Written for stage by Eleanor Bergstein, and directed by Federico Bellone, the coming-of-age tale explores the themes of love, passion, freedom, and identity. There is a real dichotomy between passion and reserve, and the juxtaposition of the squeaky clean, family fun world of the resort, and the dirtier, more sexually liberated underbelly that runs parallel. There are also many references to the civil rights movement that was going on in America at the time and mentions of the Freedom Marches that took place in the year of ’63. The idea of individuality and the importance of the freedom to be oneself permeates the narrative.

So, let’s discuss some of the cast members in more detail – all the performers were fantastic but alas, I do not possess the word count to list them all. Kira Malou took on the role of Baby, playing opposite Michael O’Reilly as Johnny Castle. The pair had great on-stage chemistry as the two protagonists. They danced beautifully together and drew audience members into the dramatic narrative. Their intimate scenes had audience members fanning themselves and cheering like wild animals.  

Baby’s family (Taryn Sudding as Marjorie, Jack Loy as Dr Jake, and Daisy Steere as Lisa) were all cast well, and bounced off one another perfectly. Daisy shone as Baby’s ditsy older sister, and much to the audience’s delight, performed Lisa’s infamous comic hula song as badly as Jane Brucker does in the film. This was awarded a good amount of chuckling from attendees of the show, and it had me thinking about the challenge of having to act as if you are a terrible dancer or singer whilst your character is supposed to be learning these skills as part of the plot. This extra effort in acting did not go unnoticed.

Georgina Aspinall played the role of Penny Johnson and provided a fabulous antagonist-turned-friend to Kira Malou’s Baby Houseman. Her dance skills were impeccable, and her high kicks and splits were eye-wateringly impressive. Mark Faith as Mr Schumacher had the crowded theatre giggling throughout and provided great physical comedy to the production.

All the ensemble cast ran a tight ship and their endless dance numbers really filled the stage, ensuring the musical is a real feast for the eyes, alongside the stage set pieces.

The production’s ‘Summer of 1963’ setting is well achieved with the set pieces that perfectly mimic both the inside and exterior of a lake house resort on the waterfront. The white stage furniture and ombre lighting backdrop help to create the bright yet ambient, wholesome, all-American lakeside holiday setting. It’s clean and rich, an image it’s guests and staff strive to uphold for themselves.

The ingenious larger pieces of the set have been designed to pull out, so they can be used for multiple purposes. The set up allowed for a quick change of location with ease. The cast members were very efficient in moving the tables and larger objects on and off the stage whilst the audience members were distracted by the action taking place at another corner of the stage, or with a wonderful live singing number.

While on the subject of Federico Bellone’s excellent set design, I feel I must also mention the clever use of a kind of scrim curtain for the log scene, where Baby and Johnny are practicing for their first show together in the water. The landscape screen was transparent through a circle in the centre, making it appear as if the two lead actors really could be out in the water, nestled amongst some trees. Some effective physical theatre acting, and sound effects really brought the memorable scene from the film to life on stage.

Furthermore, the costumes from Jennifer Irwin were beautiful and really helped create a sense of the 60s period setting. There were a mix of longer, expensive looking dresses worn by the rich female guests attending the lake resort, and tees and short shorts for the resort workers who preferred to practice their raunchy moves in the staff quarters after dark.

Additionally, a real likeness to the film was achieved through the costumes designed for Baby and Johnny. I mean what would the show be without Baby’s iconic pink dress?!

As this is a show all about dancing, it is no wonder that Austin Wilks’ choreography for the musical is on a complete other level. The ballroom mambo scenes during the dance classes are beautifully and professionally executed, and the dirtier, sexier choreography that got fans of the film hot under the collar is also replicated deliciously throughout.

The musical’s soundtrack sticks closely to the film, including the favourites such as ‘Do you love me?’, ‘You don’t own me’, ‘Cry to me’, ‘These arms of mine’, ‘Hey! Baby’ and more. There are some live numbers from the performers in ‘Kellerman’s Band’, but the musical creators were also not afraid to pipe in certain tracks from the soundtrack to keep a certain degree of authenticity to the film. I personally didn’t find this distracting, and as the actors were seen to be using record players, it made sense that some songs would be played through the speakers, directly from the 60s artists’ albums. Not having a band on stage performing live all the time also allowed for more attention to be paid to the dancing scenes with Baby and Johnny, and the narrative and dramatic acting in general.

In addition, Colin Charles, who played Tito was a definite stand-out, vocally. He stole the show during every scene he was in. Alongside Colin, Lydia Sterling who played the role of Elizabeth, was also a fantastic singing performer. As Dirty Dancing is not a musical with an all-singing cast, the few individuals that did take to the floor for their solos really demanded the audience’s full attention.

The Kellerman band’s performance of Eric Carmen’s ‘Hungry Eyes’ was brilliant, and if you didn’t see the trio of musicians on the side of the stage, you wouldn’t know it wasn’t a recording playing whilst Baby and Johnny were dancing close with one another in the centre. Throughout the show, the band provided brilliant live backing music for the dancing scenes and for the singing cast members for their solo performances.

Moreover, the atmosphere in the theatre was electric throughout the musical, and each memorable movie reference collected a vast number of whoops and cheers from fans. As most people are aware, the film ends with the iconic final dance number to ‘(I’ve had) the Time of My Life’ which involves the even more iconic ‘Dirty Dancing lift’. The famous final scene was re-enacted perfectly and was a real showstopper – it was magic. The lift garnered an enormous reaction from the audience and by the end of the number, everyone was on their feet clapping and cheering. The cast received a well-deserved, full, standing ovation for their opening night (and I am sure they will have audiences on their feet each night across the rest of their show nights this week).

I would highly recommend booking yourself a ticket and ‘having the time of your life’ seeing this feel-good, romantic, masterpiece while you still can.

Tickets for the remaining dates at Oxford’s New Theatre can be found online at https://www.atgtickets.com/shows/dirty-dancing/new-theatre-oxford/

More information about Dirty Dancing The Musical can be found online at https://dirtydancingonstage.co.uk/uk-and-ireland/tour-dates/

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