BWW Reviews: DIRTY DANCING - THE CLASSIC STORY ON STAGE at The National Theatre
For those who have not seen the 1987 sleeper hit film, let's keep this simple. Good girl Frances "Baby" Houseman (JILLIAN MUELLER) meets bad boy Johnny Castle (SAMUEL PERGANDE) at Kellerman's Resort. They dance, fall in love, and work to find themselves in the midst of the 1960's and all the glorious music it has to offer. It's a sexy story amid a simpler time when hair was so perfect it could shatter on impact, and "you don't understand" could actually end a family conversation. And that is why we love it.
One would think that a movie with singing, dancing and cheesy jokes built in would translate pretty easily, and many parts do. Rather than the main characters, soloists sing the soundtrack in the background. The choreography translates perfectly, as do the cheesy jokes and built in romance. The main faults of this show lie in adaption and direction.
You can easily see what author ELEANOR BERGSTEIN is trying to do with her adaptation. She's working for character development, and to give it more historical context. Sadly, it just doesn't work. The characters that do get additional bits of story (Neal, Tito, Billy, Marjorie Houseman) don't get enough for it to matter, and most of the audience is just waiting for the story as they remember it, rather than things clearly meant to extend runtime.
Director JAMES POWELL has a very talented cast of dancers; however, some of the acting got so cheesy it was hard to watch. And it isn't limited to one actor. If the overall idea was to play into the corny, campy goodness, fine. But there can only be so much. When the audience is laughing at your transitions, you have to make sure they're not laughing at what is meant to be serious, and a central part of the plot.
New to the adaption is Elizabeth (JENNLEE SHALLOW), a soul singer who performs the majority of the background music. While Shallow's voice is stellar, it appears as though they weren't quite sure how to use her, and overdid it. Shallow also overly enjoys her spotlight, letting certain moments linger longer than they should. Fellow singer Doug Carpenter dazzled with "In the Still of the Night", leaving me wishing for more from the other cast members. In a show this involved and fast, there has to be more trust in the ensemble.
Stars Mueller and Pergande have the tough undertaking of reinventing beloved characters. Mueller gives Baby a refreshing, funny edge, making her far more dimensional than what's on film. Pergande's Johnny, much like Patrick Swayze's portrayal, is flat, but his dancing and crowd appeal make you love Johnny all over again. Emily Rice is simply hilarious as Baby's sister Lisa, and the luau number was once again a highlight.
Production-wise, set designer STEPHEN BRIMSON LEWIS, Lighting Designer TIM MITCHELL and Video & Projection Designer JON DRISCOLL make the most of the space, using large panels to display effects. The live band mostly remains above or to the side of the action, and keep the crowd happy with the numbers we've all repeated from the soundtrack.
Costume Designer JENNIFER IRWIN shines in her accuracy, keeping everything from shorts to necklines to jackets blissfully 1960's. Several female audience members around me commented that they'd love to sneak into the dressing room, and you can't blame them. Hopefully, given how well the outfits fit on the stage, they'll just stick to Pinterest.
As previously stated, if you know and love the movie as I do, then that is how you should approach this show and its nostalgia. Is it a well-written and well-developed story? Not really. Is it a fun one? You bet. So love it for what it is - a campy foray into the forbidden, the fun, and the escape we all want and need as we sit in our theatre chairs.
DIRTY DANCING - THE CLASSIC STORY ON STAGE runs at the National Theatre through September 14th before it begins its national tour. The runtime is about 2 hours and 20 minutes. For more information and tickets, visit the production page.
Photo Credit: Matthew Murphy