Theatre review: Dirty Dancing, Festival Theatre, Edinburgh

Kira Malou as Baby and Michael O'Reilly as Johnny) in Dirty Dancing at the Festival Theatre
Kira Malou as Baby and Michael O'Reilly as Johnny) in Dirty Dancing at the Festival Theatre
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PATRICK SWAYZE’S premature death in 2009, at only 57, may have robbed Hollywood of one of its best-loved stars; but a decade on, his legacy is still helping to shape this spring’s touring programme at the Festival Theatre, with last week’s version of Ghost - a story made famous by Swayze’s star performance in the 1990 film - followed this week by a swift visit from Dirty Dancing, the record-breaking stage musical based on the smash-hit 1987 film that made Swayze’s name, when he played handsome dance instructor Johnny Castle opposite Jennifer Grey’s “Baby” Houseman, the 1960s middle-class girl with radical principles whose liberal Dad somehow struggles to accept her holiday romance with working-class Johnny.

Dirty Dancing, Festival Theatre, Edinburgh ****

Of the two stories, though, it’s Dirty Dancing - writer Eleanor Bergstein’s 1980’s take on a 1960’s love-story, born of a decade when America was shaken by social change - that stands up more strongly to the test of time. The show’s outstanding feature, in this touring production by Federico Bellone, is the sheer, heartfelt commitment of its young leading actors, not least Kira Malou as a wonderful, humorous, and increasingly radiant “Baby”, aka Frances. Michael O’Reilly, as Johnny, is a hero in the true Swayze tradition, dancingbrilliantly, and showing off muscles that have audience members of all sexes swooning in the aisles; there’s some terrific dancing and singing from a supporting cast led by Simone Covele and Alex Wheeler, and a playlist of familiar hits delivered with joyful pzazz by a three-piece onstage band.

And if the social milieu of the show is hard to imagine now - a family mountain resort full of rich white folks so liberal that they gather round the campfire to sing Woody Guthrie songs and listen to Martin Luther King on the radio - it still provides the backdrop for themes of class and sexual politics, from employment conditions to abortion rights, that continue to haunt us today; so that when Baby finally breaks free into that iconic final lift, there is still, even in 2019, hardly a dry eye in the house. - Joyce McMillan

Festival Theatre, Edinburgh, until 9 March; King’s Theatre, Glasgow, 20-25 May.