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BWW Reviews: Movie Fans, Rejoice and Broadway Fans, Recover- DIRTY DANCING Brings the Screen to the Stage

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If you follow the theatre scene of Austin, Texas at all, then you've most likely seen or heard something related to Dirty Dancing the Musical at Bass Concert Hall. The signage, the posters, the advertisements, even the ticket listings bill the production as a musical. As a part of Lexus' Broadway in Austin, it isn't far-fetched to assume the production, much like Legally Blonde the Musical or Once, is a musical version of the popular film. Which is why, after seeing the production's Austin opening, I took myself back to the internet to scour the details of the show.

Because, my friends, it is not what I would describe as a musical.

In fact, it heightened my confidence that my extremely farfetched dream of being a Broadway star with little to no vocal talent may someday be achieved- because the lead actors didn't sing one note the entire evening. Instead, the production, better billed as a play, features music from the 1987 hit film (Hungry Eyes, Do You Love Me?, (I've Had) The Time of My Life) serving as background music throughout the story, and performed exclusively by vocalists Doug Carpenter, John Anthony, Joshua Keith, Kevin Munhall, and Jennlee Shallow. Though initially thrown off as- like the Broadway fanatic I claim to be- I waited for Jillian Mueller's Baby to burst out in some form of an opening number, I eventually decided this style of "musical" was for the best. The music in the Dirty Dancing film is already spectacular, and adding in an original score ran the risk of tainting the beloved story. However, I would have liked to see the principal cast take over some of the vocals, and even had the production billed as a jukebox musical.

Music arrangements aside, the best way to describe this production would be, "Go for the story, and stay for the dancing." Will it be a Broadway-bound, Tony contender in the near (or far) future? Not in the least. An obviously dance-centric story trying its best to recreate the movie to a T results in, unfortunately, sub-par acting and an extremely rushed script. I would have much preferred a few not-so-important movie moments be cut (in addition to some extremely unnecessary Jake and Marjorie Houseman (Baby's parents) scenes)) in favor of a smoother flowing, easier-to-follow stage show. It almost seemed as if the writers were willing to cut moments integral to the understanding of an entire scene, in favor of utilizing one memorable movie line (specifically, "Nobody puts Baby in a corner," which obviously inserted just for the audience's reaction with no context surrounding it). The dance numbers, specifically Johnny's Mambo and- of course- the iconic Time of My Life, provided some much-needed repreieve from the mile-a-minute script, and really gave the actors (ahem...dancers) their moment to shine and bring justice to the film.

Jillian Mueller's Frances "Baby" Houseman and Samuel Pergande's Johnny Castle created a loveable chemistry not far from Jennifer Grey's and the late Patrick Swayze's. While their dialogue seemed infrequent, their scenes together reminded the audience why they love this timeless story. The famous Lover Boy scene (a personal favorite), was just one of the magical movie moments recreated adoringly on Bass' stage.

Emily Rice's Lisa Houseman stole the show. Almost a carbon copy of the movie, but with the added energy and spunk that comes with performing life, Rice seemed one of the only members of the company cast for her acting talent. Her comic relief was extremely welcomed, and she remained a pleasure to watch onstage the entirety of the evening. Her rendition of Lisa's Hula gained one of the strongest audience reactions of the evening, and was extremely well-deserved.

As I mentioned earlier, the dancing is really what drove the show and kept the audience. While I found myself having a hard time believing the words Jenny Winton's Penny Johnson would say, my eyes didn't lie to me, and I had no trouble believing her as an unparalleled dancer. Her dancing chemistry with Pergande was a thrill, and I found myself wishing the two shared more numbers together. While her pregnancy storyline (depicted as it is in the film) was a bit of a stretch with this actress (my sympathy for her was minimal as the raw emotion wasn't quite there for such a dark character arc), I believe her dancing ability was almost enough to make up for what I perceived as weak character development.

A set comprised of primarily screens allowed the production to quickly and smoothly change "sets:, with props and minimal physical set pieces being used to depict each location of the Kellerman Camp. While I found this a bit distracting (the screen images were not always lifelike), it worked for this particular production, which, again, I believe was meant to showcase the dancing above all else.

While I will not use the cliché that I had the Time of My Life, I will admit that I enjoyed myself. If you are a fan of the original movie, and merely expect to see it recreated live onstage, you will not be disappointed. An almost identical script, costumes, score and dance numbers create a double-edged sword for this production, but the familiar movie moments brought the audience nostalgic smiles, and some inappropriate, Johnny-directed, fangirl cheering, throughout the production. As the woman sitting behind me creatively called it, the show is a treat for those self-proclaimed "Crazy for Swayze."

For better or for worse, the entire experience made me want to run home and pop in the movie.

Dirty Dancing plays Bass Concert Hall (2350 Robert Dedman Drive, Austin 78712) now thru November 16th. Performances are Tuesday - Saturday at 8:00pm, Saturday at 2pm and Sunday at 1pm and 7pm. For tickets and information, please visit www.texasperformingarts.org

Photo credit: Matthew Murphy.


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