Directed by James Powell
Musical Supervision and
Orchestrations by Conrad Helfrich
Choreography by Michele Lynch
Original Choreography by Kate Champion
Produced by Broadway in Chicago
Playing at the Cadillac Palace Theatre
A Rousing Good Time With Top Talent
Dirty Dancing—the Classic Story Onstage has been touring since 2004, leaving a trail of cheering audiences and miffed critics. The reason for these disparate responses is that it basically is the movie onstage, with Eleanor Bergstein having taken most of the lines directly from her screenplay, and the singing being done by a chorus, and especially two particularly talented stand-outs, while Christopher Tierney and Gillian Abbott lead the dancers in their iconic roles as Johnny Castle and Baby Houseman. I frankly don’t see what the problem was. Dirty Dancing didn’t invent the concept of a jukebox musical, and theatre artists love to brag about how theatre creates a more intimate bond between audience and characters, so I’d have thought they’d be thrilled to see an example of such. And this production of Dirty Dancing certainly is great fun, with much-beloved source material as its basis, and live dancers, rather than cuts between shots, to make Kate Champion and Michele Lynch’s choreography much more thrilling and impressive.
I’ll summarize the story briefly, because the stage version, while aimed at longtime fans, is also a good introduction or refresher to Dirty Dancing. It’s 1963, and Kellerman’s Catskills resort is a summer gathering place for Jewish champagne socialists on family vacations. One such family, the Housemans, consists of a doctor (Mark Elliot Wilson), his wife (Margot White), and daughters Frances “Baby,” and Lisa (Alex Scolari). While Lisa upholds traditional upper middle-class femininity, Baby hopes to join the Peace Corps, and enjoys serious-sounding discussions with her father about those starving people in Asia and integrating the South. She does not, however, share his enjoyment of the ultra-sanitized entertainment, particularly after overhearing the proprietor encouraging the wait staff hired from Ivy League students to flirt insincerely with the guests’ daughters, and then insulting the lower class dancers treating them with baseless suspicion.
Bored one night, Baby finds an entertainer, Billy (Doug Carpenter), and joins him in the staff area for a party where she sees erotic dancing for the first time. She is particularly fascinated by dance instructors Johnny Castle and Penny Johnson (Jenny Winton). Though they’re not pleased by her presence, when she learns Penny has been impregnated by one of the Yale students, Baby sees a chance to make herself useful and put her beliefs into practice, and borrows money from her father for an abortion. She also volunteers to take Penny’s place as Johnny’s dance partner at a different resort, kicking off a forbidden romance. But when Penny’s abortion is botched and Johnny begins trusting Baby enough to share more details about the degrading treatment he receives from his patrons and employers and how much he’s internalized their assessments of him, Baby realizes that helping her new friends will require much more sacrifice on her end, and imperil her precious relationship with her father.
The biggest change from the movie is the stronger focus on the Civil Rights Movement. Several cast members are black, which goes a long way in redeeming the Kellerman management and guests as people at least trying to uphold some of their liberal convictions. One of the newly inserted songs is We Shall Overcome, sung beautifully by Jennlee Shallow, one of the stand-outs I mentioned (the other is Carpenter). The older Housemans get a bit more background, and the dissonance of people of great comfort going to a different part of the country to fight for justice while ignoring what’s right in front of them is interrogated more fully. Johnny Castle’s character arc is his learning to believe there are people who genuinely want to make the world better and have the power to do so, and all of these changes support that growth more than was the case in the film.
Speaking of which, besides their dancing, Tierney and Abbott do fine jobs acting and can hold their own with Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey. They’re not just smoldering, they’re also cute and often funny, particularly during scenes when, with a wink and a nod, the video designer Jon Driscoll chose to project natural environments onto a scrim in order to replicate scenes from the movie of Johnny teaching Baby to dance in the wilderness. The score contains a wide variety of 50s-80s to music, and though the orchestra is hidden most of the time, possibly to disguise if anything’s pre-recorded (I know they played You Don’t Own Me quite well), Shallow and Carpenter’s renditions of In The Thrill of the Night and The Time of My Life were more than lively, they made the house roar with approval. I was amazed by how fast the first act flew by, since I was having such a good time. Regardless of whatever form the stage adaptation of Dirty Dancing may fit into, it is a joyous experience that will strengthen a fan’s love for the franchise.
Reviewed August 19, 2015
For more information, see Dirty Dancing’s page on Theatre in Chicago.
Playing at the Cadillac Palace Theatre, 151 W Randolph, Chicago. Tickets are $18-85; to order, call 800-775-2000 or visit BroadwayinChicago.com. Performances are Tuesdays-Fridays at 7:30 pm (and 2:00 pm on Wednesday), Saturdays at 2:00 and 8:00 pm, and Sundays at 2:00 and 7:30 pm through August 30 (no evening performance that day). Running time is two hours and fifteen minutes with one intermission.