BWW Reviews: DIRTY DANCING Mambos Onto The TPAC Stage

Gillian Abbott and Christopher Tierney

You don't have to be an aficionado of Dirty Dancing, the 1987 film starring Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey as a mismatched romantic duo brought together by some sexy dance moves at a Catskills resort, to find yourself loving every moment of Dirty Dancing, The Classic Story On Stage, now ensconced at Tennessee Performing Arts Center's Andrew Jackson Hall through Sunday. Sure, it helps if you can recall virtually every line from Eleanor Bergstein's screenplay - you can wax nostalgic as her story comes to life before your eyes, and afterwards, as you make your way home while humming "This Magic Moment" to underscore the movement of traffic - but even if you aren't familiar with the movie, you are likely still to be drawn to the story of Johnny Castle and Frances "Baby" Houseman, set in 1963 just before all the tumult of that particular decade exploded onto the world's stage.

Cleverly and imaginatively brought to life onstage in this Equity production now touring the country, Dirty Dancing is evocative of its time and place and the story of Johnny and Baby's burgeoning love affair is just as potent as it ever was - perhaps even more so, thanks to the stellar performances of Christopher Tierney and Gillian Abbott as the star-crossed lovers at the story's center, impressively directed by James Powell and choreographed by Michele Lynch.

By setting the story during the summer of 1963 - prior to President Kennedy's assassination and after the events of the previous autumn (the Cuban missile crisis, during which the western hemisphere could have gone up in a mushroom cloud had calmer minds not responded as they did to the movement of nuclear warheads just off the Florida coast) - Bergstein ably captures the changing times with a veteran storyteller's mien, using the realities of the world at that time to spin her romantically involving tale of the two young lovers writ large onstage ahead of the coming tsunami of social change that would engulf the world by decade's end.

Gillian Abbott and Doug Carpenter

This Dirty Dancing - live and onstage and all which that entails - isn't so much a reimagining of the source material, as it is a restaging of the movie to attract its legions of fans who have delighted in the story for the past quarter century and then some.

Every iconic moment is there: Baby still carries a watermelon to the dancers' party; the knocked-up Penny is found crying in the kitchen as she considers a back-alley abortion; Lisa still sings off-key during the season-closing talent show; the Kellerman's waitstaff is still smarmy, slightly condescending and sexy in that early '60s way that guys had back then; and Johnny initially rebuffs Baby's efforts to ingratiate herself into his good graces. Baby and Johnny still find their balance atop a log stretching across a mountain stream and practice lifts in the lake, falling time and again. And somehow, perhaps amazingly, making it work just as your memory recalls.

Yet it's not traditional music theater as we know it: For the most part, the songs are performed by Jennlee Shallow (portraying several small character roles while delivering some memorable vocal performances including an ethereally beautiful and altogether moving version of Lesley Gore's "You Don't Own Me") and Doug Carpenter (as Johnny's cousin Billy Kostecki, he sings a rendition of "In The Still of the Night" that will knock your crew socks off), some are recorded tracks and others sung by the actors onstage, but neither Tierney nor Abbott sings. Shallow and Carpenter perform "(I've Had) The Timie of My Life," the film soundtrack's biggest hit, with such emotion and passion that you will wish for more.

Gillian Abbott and Christoper Tierney

Tierney and Abbott - as well as the other cast members, including Mark Elliott Wilson and Margot White as Baby's parents (the roles played so memorably in the movie by Jerry Orbach and Kelly Bishop), Alex Scolari as her sister Lisa, and Ryan Jesse as Neil Kellerman - bring their characters to life with an easy grace, somehow giving original interpretations that nod knowingly to the original actors' onscreen performances.

But let's be honest: How difficult must it be to recreate such roles while somehow walking the fine line between homage and mimicry? Tierney and Abbott clearly are up to the task. His Johnny is sexier and more appealing than Swayze's to be sure and his performance seems more natural than his screen counterpart. Abbott's Baby is believable and charming, wonderfully winsome and totally engaging. Together, the pair display a chemistry that can't be taught or learned; rather, it must simply exist - and then combust like so much fiery passion. They deliver the goods and then some.

Jenny Winton is a talented dancer/actress, with legs up to there, and she looks like a million bucks strutting around the stage in short-shorts that would've inspired Bob Gaudio to write another song if he saw her in them. In the show's early going on opening night, Winton seemed somewhat uncertain, but managed to gain her skilled footing as the plot progressed.

Christopher Tierney and Jenny Winton

Beautifully designed, Dirty Dancing onstage has something of a picture postcard feel about it, as the production recaptures those long-ago days when every day, it seemed, was buffeted by the winds of revolutionary change. Making extraordinarily gorgeous use of projections and LED walls to show us the mid-century wonders of Kellerman's resort in the Catskills, replete with Borscht Belt comedians, croquet matches and Simons Says games, merengue and cha-cha lessons in the gazebo amid the evolving roles of women and minorities, the show's period feel is palpably felt throughout the production, feeling somehow sumptuous and timeless.

If you are a newcomer to the story of Dirty Dancing, you are likely to find yourself swept up in the romanticism of the time period (you can credit the ubiquity of Mad Men for some of that, truth be told) and if you can suspend disbelief (something you should give yourself over to every time you walk into a darkened auditorium to see magic being made onstage), you will be transported to the 1960s when times seemed simpler yet were just as complex and confounding as any day spent in the 21st Century. Stephen Brimson Lewis' set design provides the ideal setting for the story, while Tim Mitchell's exquisite lighting provides the perfect illumination for the onstage action, accenting Jennifer Irwin's stunning period costumes that clothe the startlingly gorgeous cast with an easy elegance that is sure to set your heart racing.

  • Dirty Dancing, The Classic Story On Stage. By Eleanor Bergstein. Directed by James Powell. Choreography by Michele Lynch. Original choreography by Kate Champion. Performed by The National Touring Company. Presented at Tennessee Performing Arts Center's Andrew Jackson Hall, Nashville Through Sunday, September 27. For details and tickets, go to www.TPAC.org. Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes (with one 20-minute intermission).

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From This Author Jeffrey Ellis

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