Dirty Dancing hits the stage with a slow simmer but no sizzle

Photo by Matthew Murphy

Photo by Matthew Murphy

Adapting various forms of entertainment for a different medium is always a tricky thing. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. Movies have been made into TV shows with not the greatest success, M*A*S*H being an exception. TV shows have been made into movies more successfully, Broadway plays and musicals were a natural to be made into movies back when the cinema was born, books and movies are turned into stage shows because they’re a widely known commodity but with mixed results. Wicked, Singin’ In the Rain, Hairspray and Spamalot all did justice to the source material (well, I’m firmly in the camp who thinks Wicked is a much better book than show) while Carrie, Ghost and Thoroughly Modern Millie took too many liberties and did not compare favorably to the movies.

And now another beloved motion picture, Dirty Dancing, has made the transition from film to stage and the result is … far from classic. If you’re not familiar with the movie, the story centers on the Houseman family’s summer vacation to a resort in upstate New York. The time is the summer of 1963, just before the “end of innocence.” Youngest daughter “Baby” is a bit of a wallflower in life, but one who has very strong political and humanitarian beliefs, but when she sees the resort’s dance pro Johnny Castle at work, something stirs in her. While the guests are not permitted to fraternize with the staff — no, check that, the male wait staff is encouraged to show the ladies a good time if approached (wink, wink) — “Baby” makes her way to the private staff area where a wild party is in progress. She immediately connects with Johnny, and then through a series of events that come racing through the story at a fast and furious pace, “Baby” has to replace Johnny’s partner Penny in a show at another resort but their relationship draws heavy disapproval from her father. Will these two kids have to call it quits at the end of the summer?

The show began life in Australia in 2004 and made its way to the States in 2007. The new national tour began in 2014 and will continue through the summer of 2016 in North America (the show is currently at Baltimore’s Hippodrome Theatre through May 24). While it tries to tell a linear story, there are many subplots going on and scenes are so short that your head spins trying to keep pace with the action on stage. I felt no real connection to anything happening in the story, many of the actors were really playing to the balcony (a bit too much), and even a lot of the dancing seemed more like acting than dancing. And I love to watch people dance, but I’ve seen more emotion from a number on Dancing With the Stars than I did in this show. Not that the dancing was bad, it was just adequate (until the final number when everyone finally cut loose).

Another problem that could have led to the disconnect is the script which was written around the songs instead of organically having the music come from the story. There is a lot of canned music of the period, a few sung numbers of the classic tunes and a few originals, the show concludes with the classic “(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life,” but it also shoe horns in some of the other songs from the movie like like Eric Carmen’s “Hungry Eyes,” which may have worked in the movie in 1987 but is a total anachronism in 2015. That and another song that sounded like The Pointer Sisters’ “I’m So Excited” (but wasn’) just don’t go with the rest of the period music in the show and pulled me completely out of the story. At least “(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life” sounds like it could have come from the time period.

Gillian Abbott really makes the audience root for “Baby.” tweet

The actors range from engaging to pure ham (some intentional, some not) with Gillian Abbott giving the most consistent, endearing performance. Her “Baby” is the focal point of the story and Abbott really makes the audience root for her to stop being “Daddy’s Little Girl” and make her own way in the world. Her dancing is necessarily awkward in the beginning, but by the time they get to that final classic moment from the film, she had the audience cheering (and that’s saying something because there are not many opportunities for the audience to applaud making it an oddly quiet show to sit through). Samuel Pergande, as Johnny, was just too “I’m acting!” for my taste, and he just reminded me too much of a young Bruce Campbell (not necessarily a bad thing, but it didn’t work for this role). Even when he delivers Johnny’s signature line, it feels almost like a throwaway (maybe Pergande hates the line as much as Patrick Swayze originally did) and it doesn’t seem to make much sense anyway. Jenny Winton’s Penny is the most troubling character for me as she’s rather schizophrenic. One minute she’s snapping at “Baby” and a minute later they’re BFFs. Then Penny hates her again and likes her and dislikes her … it was all very confusing. I don’t fault Winton at all (who, by the way, has legs for days and shows them off with her dancing skills). She does the best she can, but every moment on stage has to happen so quickly to get to the next song that it’s hard for anyone to really allow their character to be consistent outside of “Baby.”

I will admit I have never seen the movie because I’ve been disappointed by so many film to stage adaptations, and I like not having that baggage of expectations to color my view of the show (it took a long time to get into Chicago after only having seen the movie prior to the show). Perhaps fans of the movie will find much more to enjoy with the stage show, and will be able to take what amounts to a “greatest hits” of moments from the film and piece the whole thing together. Last season, the adaptation of Ghost was my least favorite show of the year and, unfortunately, Dirty Dancing is this year’s Ghost.

Dirty Dancing will be touring North America through June 2016. You can get more information about tickets by clicking on the banner.

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