If you loved the movie, the stage adaptation of “Dirty Dancing” is essentially the movie to a tee, but with the added thrill and energy that only a live performance can give you. The show is running as part of The Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts’ Broadway series.
The production plays on movie fans’ fondness for the story of Baby and her family’s vacation to a camp-like resort for the summer where dancing is the main form of entertainment and where she is allured by the staff’s free and sexy after hours dancing. She meets and tangles with dreamy dance instructor Johnny Castle and he opens up her world when she steps up to fill his dance partner, Penny’s place for a performance when she finds out she’s pregnant and wants to have an abortion. They open up Baby’s world by teaching her their dance routine in a coming of age story as the young virgin falls for Johnny.
Christopher Tierney (Johnny Castle) is the epitome of Swayze from the dancing and the attitude to the silky hair and the muscles (oh, those abs and biceps!). Rachel Boone (Frances “Baby” Houseman) looks like a skinnier Jennifer Grey with that iconic curly brown hair and all. She channels more comedy into the character than you get from the movie, accentuating the awkward moments for humor.
Tierney danced with swagger and grace and Boone was an elegant dancer when her character learns the moves. You almost have to be a good dancer to play a character fumbling through the steps because you have enough of an understanding of how it should be that you can really milk acting the mistakes and sell it as comedy.
The unique thing about “Dirty Dancing” that’s different than your typical musical is that the dancing is the focal point, not the singing. Very few of the actors actually sing in the show, except the ones playing performers within the story and did so very beautifully. There aren’t really any original songs written for the stage version, as you mostly hear the classics from the movie. But the show gets away with it because the movie fans want to hear those songs, so when they are tracks with no one singing on stage the audience is enjoying the music, remembering those moments from the film, and enjoying the dancing and acting. You can tell because the loudest cheer erupted when two of the actors touchingly sang “(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life” for Baby and Johnny’s iconic dance at the end. It was a beautifully poignant recreation of that choreography, as was most of the choreography in the show for the dance lesson scenes involving our two leads.
The playbill noted that this production was able to get rights to songs from the movie that the original stage adaptation was not able to do they inserted the songs where they were intended to appear.
Tierney and Jenny Winton (Penny Johnson) paired well as a dancing team and had strong chemistry, which is fitting because their characters are often mistaken as dating in the show when they’re not. Winton moved effortlessly and gracefully. The dirty dancing seen in the staff clubhouse is very smooth and fluid and serves as a visual and physical representation of a conversation between two people in addition to the sex appeal.
Alex Scolari paints a caricature of Baby’s sister, Lisa, really using the role as a vehicle for comedy, particularly in her hula song for the talent show. She is a master of the musical, not only singing powerfully, but knowing where to hit the comical notes in her style to make it play funny and ridiculous honoring that scene from the movie. Alex is able to add sisterly antics to her character from snooty tattle tale to concern and compassion. In a way she is more innocent than Baby, who is sheltered toward the beginning as the protected Daddy’s girl. And because of that Baby looks out for her, particularly when she falls in with the wrong guy who is deceptively charming, Robbie Gould, played by Evan Alexander Smith.
Mark Elliot Wilson plays Dr. Jake Houseman as goofy yet stern and overprotective when it comes to his morals and his daughters, particularly Baby. Dr. Houseman is literally man of the house, a true family man. So it’s not surprising he jumps to conclusions when he sees someone he thinks could be detrimental to his family.
One area where the play is different than the movie is in the character of Baby’s mother, Marjorie, played by Margot White. She is much stronger than in the movie in how she stands up for Baby and comes to her defense with compassion. It makes her much more essential than in the film. I loved the moments when Baby, in teenage angst, yells at her “you don’t understand,” expecting a scolding. But she literally doesn’t understand because she doesn’t know what happened to be able to, so we empathize with her as she reacts with innocent and comical oblivion.
The Civil Rights movement is woven into the stage version more, particularly in a musically powerful reimagining of “We Shall Overcome.” It also comes into play in terms of Baby’s motivations to help others and make a difference in the world and maybe join the Peace Corps.
Aside from the magnificent dancing in the production, I found the sets, lighting and use of video projection to be stunning. At one point it felt like the audience was under the sea with the sparkling glow of pink twinkle lights. The production also made use of scrims to show silhouettes and shadows of dancers in the background as visual imagery underlying the scene before it.
The projections were also utilized in the dirty dancing scenes to enhance the mood of a partying crowd after hours. Background scenery was also projected, such as when Johnny is teaching Baby “the lift” in the water and in the grassy field. The thing that was cool about that was how the actors pretended they were in that environment. When they acted out Baby’s several “falls” into the water, the composition of the lighting on those parts of the screen became thicker to hide them and make it appear like they were under water. When Baby and Johnny emerged, they flicked their hair like they were coming out of the water soaking wet. It played humorously.
Sound effects were also crucial in moments where the actors pantomime the use of set pieces that aren’t there like Johnny driving his car or the slamming of the car doors. There was a lot of laughter in the audience at those moments as people seemed to find it amusing.
The physical set pieces were maneuvered in and out very smoothly, such as the door representing the entrance to the place where Baby is staying.
Jon Driscoll was the video and projection designer, Bobby Aitken was the sound designer, Stephen Brimson Lewis designed the set and Tim Mitchell was the lighting designer.
James Powell directed the show, Michele Lynch choreographed and Alan J. Plado was the music director.
The show requires a talented ensemble that all show character and dancing prowess to propel the story.
I certainly had the time of my life. To have yours, visit http://www.bushnell.org for ticket information. The show runs through May 29.