Shropshire Star

Dirty Dancing: Stage stars having the time of their life

You can be the most experienced producer in the world but sometimes you have to follow your heart rather than your head.

Dirty Dancing

Ask Karl Sydow, the man responsible, against all sensible advice, for putting Dirty Dancing on stage and watching as it broke box office records all around the world. And the show is coming to the region this summer, with dates at The Alexandra Birmingham in July.

The story begins in Sydney, Australia in 2004. “It’s where I bumped into a very drunk rock ‘n’ roll promoter,” he recalls, “keen to stage a theatrical version of Dirty Dancing. He’d gone bankrupt but had somehow held on to the rights of the show.

“So, I phoned my then 18-year-old daughter, Katarina, who’d watched the movie over and over again with her friends. I asked her whether she thought it was a good idea to put the show on stage. And she said yes.”

She wasn’t the only female to give the project a thumbs-up. Judi Dench was a friend of long standing. “And I’d never forgotten the fact that she told me Dirty Dancing was her favourite film of all time.

“It’s a kind of fairy tale,” says Karl, 69, “a blend of Cinderella going to the ball, falling for a James Dean bad boy and winning his love via dance. Alongside that is the story of an unwanted pregnancy, false accusations of theft and a bitter family rift before all comes right in the end.”

It cost less than £4 million to make. “I’ve spent more than that on each stage production I’ve done. The producers wanted John Travolta for the key role of Johnny but couldn’t afford him so settled for Patrick Swayze.”

Initially, the film was released in only a handful of cinemas in the summer of 1987. But the word of mouth was good and gradually Dirty Dancing became a smash, taking $210 million at the worldwide box office. In the industry, it became known as ‘Star Wars for girls’.

And yet, it might never have seen the light of day. The shooting wrapped on October 27, 1986, both on-time and on-budget. No one on the team, however, liked the rough cut that was put together, and studio executives were convinced the film was going to flop.

In May 1987, the film was screened for producer Aaron Russo. According to studio executive, Mitchell Cannold, Russo’s reaction at the end was: “Burn the negative – and collect the insurance.”

Wiser counsel prevailed and Dirty Dancing went on to become the first film to sell more than a million copies for home video, its soundtrack becoming one of the most successful records of all time.

Karl felt quietly confident that he was on to a winner. He was right. With a record-breaking £15 million advance in sales and House Full notices for the first six months of the initial London run, Dirty Dancing became the fastest-selling show in West End history and ran for five years.

Dirty Dancing – The Classic Story On Stage features hit songs including ‘Hungry Eyes’, ‘Hey! Baby’, ‘Do You Love Me?’ and the heart-stopping ‘(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life’. Many favourite original masters feature within the show which blends the movie soundtrack seamlessly with live performances by the cast. Some of these classic tracks include ‘Cry To Me’ by rhythm & blues singer Solomon Burke, the No.1 hit single ‘Hey! Baby’ by Bruce Channel and ‘These Arms of Mine’, Otis Redding’s first solo record.

Other artists featured include Gene Chandler, The Chantels, The Drifters, Marvin Gaye, Lesley Gore, Mickey & Sylvia, The Surfaris and Django Reinhardt.

The show has since toured, the most successful being when it went on the road in Blackpool in August 2021 before finally coming to rest in London this January. “But then Michael O’Reilly and Kira Malou are probably the best Johnny and Baby we’ve ever had,” says Karl.

Now they’re back for a new run.

Michael went straight from Bird music college in Sidcup into the lead role of Johnny in the 2018 tour of Dirty Dancing. “I was 21 and it remains one of my best moments ever. But then it’s one of the most iconic roles in any musical.”

As it turned out, Michael, 25, had never seen the movie. “Part way through my audition, the director said he wanted a very similar tone in one scene to the same bit in the film. ‘You’ve seen Dirty Dancing, I presume?’ he said. ‘Of course,’ I lied. ‘Great, then play it at this point like Patrick Swayze.’

“I watched the DVD that evening at home and of course I hadn’t done the scene anything like Patrick Swayze.”

No matter, he got the part. “And it changed my life.” In more ways than one. In his final audition, he was introduced to Kira Malou, chosen to play Baby.

“When you’re in a show like that opposite someone as beautiful as Kira,” says Michael, “the inevitable is going to happen. We fell in love.” They’ve been together ever since.

Kira, 27, had been on the Dirty Dancing tour in 2017 as a dancer although she was understudy to Baby, landing the role full-time when the show toured again the following year.

So how long did it take her to fall for her leading man? “Almost immediately. He was so kind and supportive, always in such high spirits. Four years later, he’s still happy all the time.”

All right but what happens if they have a row over their morning muesli? “We leave everything at the stage door.

“If ever there was a show that lifts your mood – whether you’re on stage or in the audience – it’s Dirty Dancing.”

Following its run at the Dominion, Dirty Dancing will tour the UK and Ireland, arriving at The Alexandra Birmingham from July 18 to 22.

Finally, as if one fairy tale on stage wasn’t enough, consider the story of Charlotte Coggin, a 28-year-old dancer who auditioned for the run of Dirty Dancing the last time it played at the Dominion for 10 weeks from the beginning of February 2022. She got down to the final two but the other dancer was chosen.

Not to be outdone, Charlotte got a job working front-of-house in the theatre’s champagne bar. But, when a cast member fell ill towards the end of the run, her agent got a call: would Charlotte like to replace her?

“I was shocked but really pleased. And everyone was so welcoming. At the end of my first performance, all my friends from front-of-house lined the stairs and cheered and clapped when I took my bow. It was so lovely.”

It gets better. When it was announced that Dirty Dancing was to return to the Dominion at the beginning of next January, Charlotte was invited to audition again, both as a dancer but also to understudy the lead role of Baby.

“And I got the job. I know it all sounds like the plot of a movie but it’s true. It happened to me.”

No need to ask if she’s pleased. “To coin a phrase,” she says, “I’m having the time of my life!”

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