Dirty Dancing continues at the Milton Keynes Theatre until 29 April, then tours until 23 September.
Star rating: four stars ★ ★ ★ ★ ✩
Based on the hit 1987 movie of the same name and featuring music by Eric Carmen and The Ronettes, Dirty Dancing comes to the Milton Keynes Theatre as the 14th stop on its nationwide tour.
As the house lights dim and a silky smooth voice politely reminds us that “cell phones weren’t invented in the 1960s”, I am struck by the sheer anticipation in the room.
“We hope you have a great time,” the announcer teasingly concludes over the PA, and a chorus pipes up around the stalls, equally assured, “Oh we will!” For many, it seems, this is less of a production than it is a pilgrimage.
The story, familiar to many, follows the wide-eyed Baby (Katie Hartland) on vacation with her affluent family at Kellerman’s Resort in the Catskill Mountains.
During an after-hours staff party she meets Johnny Castle (Lewis Griffiths,) an all round Adonis and the resort’s dance instructor.
The two are soon thrown together in preparation for Johnny’s regular gig at the nearby Sheldrake resort after his dance partner Penny (Carlie Milner) falls pregnant by a member of the catering team. After some initial trepidation, Baby and Johnny’s working relationship begins to bloom and evolve into something unexpected.
In addition to Federico Bellone’s direction, there is a slick and versatile design by Roberto Comotti and exerting, genre-spanning choreography by Gillian Bruce, this show is built on firm foundations.
However, having such an iconic movie to emulate, the production’s success hinges primarily on the casting of Baby and Johnny, though any concerns are quickly put to rest by this dynamic pairing.
Hartland excels as Baby, wholly loveable and funny in her most naive moments (“I carried a watermelon!”) and marionette-like in Baby’s cringe-inducing first few dance lessons.
The initial gracelessness on display here is uncomfortably believable, which is testament to Hartland’s skills as a performer, later tearing up the dance floor as a foil to Griffiths’ Johnny.
And it is through him that the production transcends the label of entertaining fan service to crowd-converting spectacle.
Griffiths exudes cool, completely selling the raw sex appeal required of the part. When he holds the floor the entire room seems to hold its breath.
This man, it seems, is a total force of nature, though to say this is solely down to his looks would be doing him an utter disservice. Even his ability as a dancer, effortless and natural, doesn’t quite compare to the sheer passion he demonstrates for his art, something which cannot be faked.
It is this and his credibility in Johnny’s more vulnerable moments that save the part from merely being a Chippendale chump, though there is something oddly charming about a theatre full of women wolf-whistling and cat calling at the sight of his bare anything.
Elsewhere Carlie Milner shines as the tragic Penny, heartbreaking in her circumstances and jaw-dropping in her movement, and Trevor Michael Georges is a charismatic delight as the velvet-voiced Tito Suarez.
The production is let down only by one anomalous moment of audience participation, where entertainment staffer Billy (Michael Kent) in a questionably built-up game of ‘Simon Says’ tells the crowd to put up their hands before being (welcomely) dragged offstage.
This is then punctuated by the following fully-lit scene change, during which a stagehand leaves the stage right wing curtain open for a view of the passing actors and crew members, with light pouring onstage for the following few minutes.
This being said, the production has absolutely no problem in regaining its momentum, with such reliable leads and intelligent design.
And in a finale containing Bill Medley and Jennifer Warnes’ ‘(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life’ accompanied of course by THAT lift, you’ll have hungry eyes for more. Pure electricity.