By Erin Fleming
Dirty Dancing: The Classic Story on Stage is designed as a sweet and sultry love letter to fans of the 1987 hit film starring Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey, and it totally delivers.
Those movie fans who who find they can’t pass up watching it anytime they find it on a cable channel on a rainy Saturday, will truly appreciate this production, which is an unabashed full-on homage to the film.
It’s the summer of 1963. President Kennedy is still alive, and the Beatles have yet to conquer America. Seventeen-year-old Frances Houseman, aka “Baby,” is on a family vacation at Kellerman’s Resort in the Catskills during her final summer before college. As her nickname suggests, Baby is naïve, but she is also earnest and bold – planning to join the Peace Corps. Most of all, she wants to make the world a better place. And lose her virginity. Not necessarily in that order.
On her first night, Baby, (Gillian Abbott) stumbles upon the steamy underbelly of the resort – the nightly “basement party” held in the staff quarters, where she finds herself mesmerized by the entrancing rhythms of the music and the racy dance moves of the older kids. Baby can’t wait to be part of the scene, especially when she catches sight of Johnny Castle, Kellerman’s dance instructor from the other side of the tracks, played by Christopher Tierney with an uncannily Swayze-like command of smoldering aloofness. Baby’s life changes forever when she is thrown into the young adult world of Johnny and his friends, becoming his leading lady both on and off the dance floor.
The playbook is extremely faithful to the film, and no wonder, considering it by Eleanor Bergstein, who penned the original screenplay, based on her own family’s summers in the Catskills. Fans will love the almost shot-for-shot re-creation of the action on stage, and will hear all their favorite iconic lines, from “I carried a watermelon,” to “This is MY dance space; this is YOUR dance space,” and, of course, “Nobody puts Baby…” well, you know.
It’s a straightforward coming of age story, with Baby’s journey into womanhood a serviceable metaphor for the loss of innocence that the country was about to experience after the summer of ‘63, as we collectively moved out of the early MadMen years into the turbulent era that would follow, where well-established lines between races, classes and genders would be re-examined and confronted. All the indicators of what’s to come are here in snippets of conversation between resort guests about Vietnam, Cuba and protest marches, in the rebellion of Baby and her sister Lisa (Alex Scolari) against the social mores around female sexuality, as well as in the drama created when Penny (Jenny Winton), Johnny’s dance partner, chooses to have an illegal abortion that almost kills her. But don’t let all that serious stuff detract from what’s really important: the dancing.
There is rarely a moment on stage when someone isn’t dancing. The choreography by Michele Lynch and Kate Champion is full of traditional fox-trots, mambos, rumbas and cha-chas, as well as the more soulfully erotic moves suggested by the title. There is an abundance of crowd-pleasing turns, kicks, dips and lifts, often impressively executed on rotating platforms. The entire company joins in for the big dance finale that closes out the Kellerman’s Talent Show and features Johnny and Baby finally getting that lift right.
However, patrons who come for the dancing will be happily surprised by the music. Differing from the traditional, stock character-sung musical where the leads break out into song, the singing is mostly handled by perimeter characters outside of the main action. The effect is that the overall feel is somewhere between one of those sing-a-long evenings for classic film musicals like The Sound of Music, and an audience participation event like Rocky Horror Picture Show.
There are many moments where the audience feels moved to sing along to the familiar tunes, but on opening night, you could have heard a pin drop during Billy’s (Doug Carpenter) rendition of “In the Still of the Night,” a perfectly crafted moment of romantic blue-eyed soul. The other remarkable stand- vocal performer, stealing every scene she’s in, is Jennlee Shallow, whose Latin version of Leslie Gore’s feminist anthem “You Don’t’ Own “would shoot to number one in any decade. Shallow is clearly a breakout star, establishing a direct relationship with the audience early on, not unlike Pippin’s Leading Player.
Tito Suarez’ (Jerome Harmann-Hardeman) live orchestra, expertly conducted by Alan Plado, is as fun to watch as they are to listen to when we are given a glimpse of them upstage. The score is full of love for early rock ‘n’ roll hits like “This Magic Moment,” “Do You Love Me?” “Maybe”and “Love Is Strange” with some of the newer hits from the film like “Hungry Eyes” and “She’s Like the Wind” thankfully used much more incidentally. The exception to this being the use of the grammy-winning original song from the film “(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life” to great effect for the finale, featuring a stunning trumpet solo by Michael Robb, as well as the much-anticipated pairing of Shallow and Carpenter in a duet whose chemistry echoes that of Tierney and Abbott.
In an interview early on during the premiere season, writer Bergstein said, “As I learned how many people watched the movie over and over and over, I began to think that what they really wanted was to share more intensely in the event, to step through the screen and be there while the story was happening.”
What the creative team manages to do is just that – to put the audience right in middle of the action. Director James Powell re-imagines the movie through a unique multi-media fusion of storytelling, classic songs and choreography. Through clever use of scrims, projections and lighting, all the iconic scenes are reproduced: Baby and Johnny dancing on the log, in the tall grass, in the ocean, in the Sheldrake ballroom. Their drive home from the Sheldrake is realized by a video backdrop behind the couple as Johnny mimes handling the steering wheel and gear shift. One of the biggest laughs of the show is when Baby mimes slamming the car door, accompanied by a perfectly timed sound effect.
The flirty and fun costumes and hair are dead-on; accurately replicating the sun-drenched, Kodachrome palette of an early sixties summer. Instant nostalgia.
This is a great show for folks who really remember and love the film; those who don’t might not have the time of their lives. It’s also a great choice for first-time theatergoers, because the watching-a-movie aspect of the production will gently ease them into the live theater experience.
“Dirty Dancing – The Classic Story On Stage “was first performed in Sydney, Australia, in November, 2004 before embarking on record breaking tours in the U.K. and throughout Europe. It’s worldwide appeal has taken it to Utrecht, Holland, Johannesburg and Cape Town, South Africa. The show opens the second year of its current North American tour at the Cadillac Palace Theatre in Chicago, where it will offer performances through August 30. Tickets and more information are available online here.