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Review: Dirty Dancing at Sunderland Empire

The musical version of the quintessentially 80s movie guilty pleasure does exactly what it sets out to do

Dirty Dancing is dazzling audiences on Wearside

With a highly charged atmosphere created by a predominantly female audience, no-one would dare have put ‘Baby in the corner’ at Sunderland Empire on Thursday night.

Dirty Dancing, the all-singing, all-dancing stage adaptation of the 80s chick flick of the same name, is on Wearside for an extended run that will end rather aptly on Valentine’s Day, and there were a good number of hearts sent a flutter three nights in.

The main catalyst for the oohs, aahs and whoops of approval from the oestrogen filled theatre was leading man Gareth Bailey as Johnny Castle

Stepping into the shoes of Patrick Swayze was a big enough ask when the snakehipped heartthrob was alive but it’s even more of a mantle to take on now he’s mamboing in the big ballroom in the sky.

Anyone cast in the role takes on the enjoyable yet enviable challenge of doing justice to the character that won a place in the affections of many women when they first saw the film.

I’m pleased to report that while no-one can ever quite recreate the smouldering Swayze finesse of 1987, Gareth certainly did him proud with some rather nifty moves and a swaggering and self-assured stage presence.

It was the chemistry between Swayze and co-star Jennifer Grey nearly 30 years ago that made the love story between Johnny and Baby so intense and bearing a remarkable resemblance to Swayze’s on screen squeeze, Roseanna Frascona made for a fine Baby.

The gawky demeanour and mannerisms of wallflower Baby were there but then so was the inner confidence and feistiness that comes bursting out with the action that ensues after the famous carrying of the watermelon.

As well as catapulting Swayze and Grey into movie folklore, Dirty Dancing is still admired for its Oscar winning soundtrack.

One of the most noticeable things about the show is the lack of singing done by the leads, with the baton instead being passed to some of the cast’s talented singers, particularly the soft-shoeing Colin Charles as Tito and Wayne Smith as Billy.

While this allowed Bailey and Frascona to demand maximum attention for their footwork and characters' burgeoning romance it did take a bit of getting used to.

To be honest though with the audience either mouthing or singing word perfect versions of Do You Love Me, Yes (deservedly given more prominence than in the film) and the likes in their seats, it was clear they had just come to enjoy the songs rather than critique any vocals.

While the film, whether deserving of the tag or not, will always be put firmly in the chick flick pigeon hole, with some added humour, demanding dance routines and great staging, the musical isn’t quite as easy to typecast.

Leading the sassyness stakes as Penny, the striking Claire Rogers also showed real grit when dealing with darker moments like her character’s pregnancy trauma and subsequent abortion drama, scenes that allowed her to flex her acting muscle.

Dirty Dancing

Humour was brought to the kitsch party by Jessie-Lou Yates as Lisa Houseman, complete with hula skirt of course, and Alexander Wolfe as Neil Kellerman while James Coombes ruled the Houseman family with a firm but fair hand with Julia Nagle at his side.

Dirty Dancing was very much an ensemble show- the dance numbers, whether the steamy staff after hours party or the more straight laced hotel dance classes, wouldn’t have had the same impact without the strength in numbers.

In a week when Strictly celebrities took the floor up the road at the Metro Radio Arena, the Empire’s stars showcased some top notch dance talent with an appreciative audience lapping it up rather than Craig Revel-Horwood sharpening his claws ready for an acid tongued attack from his judges seat.

The much anticipated and fantastically executed Time of My Life lift got many people out for their seats with an enthusiasm that suggested they’d been like coiled springs in their seats.

While some shows have a tendency to take themselves a tad too seriously Dirty Dancing is a cheesy cha cha cha-ing ball of fun, with some mighty fine performers pulling the strings.

Time of My Life? Not quite but if you haven’t seen the show yet, leave any theatrical snobbery at home and be prepared to have a great night out.

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*Dirty Dancing is on at the Sunderland Empire until Saturday, February 14. Get your tickets from the box office or ATG.


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