BWW Review: DIRTY DANCING is a Disappointing Disservice to Original Film

Since the dawn of the genre, stage shows have been adapted from various sources; books, other plays, poems, historical events, and, increasingly over the past two decades, movies. The best projects based on movies take what is special from the source material and use that as inspiration to form a fresh stage adaptation. However, the DIRTY DANCING National Tour, playing at Orlando's Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts through Sunday, April 3rd, focuses so intently on recreating the minutia of the film, that it completely misses what made it so captivating in the first place; authentic, compelling characters and an intimate, passionate story.

Christopher Tierney and Rachel Boone
Photo Credit: Matthew Murphy

From the first familiar drum beat of the quasi-overture, it is clear that the Dr. Phillips Opening Night audience was ready to revisit their love for the film, and roared with knowing approval. However, those reactions of genuine excitement were few and far between the rest of the evening, reserved only for the most iconic lines and tableaus from the 1987 movie version, which starred Jennifer Grey and Patrick Swayze.

In between, what was on stage amounted to little more than disappointing dreck that was ultimately a disservice to the beloved original. It needs to be said that this production of DIRTY DANCING is not a musical, though that is far from clear based on the advertising; at best, it can be described as a misbegotten play with music; only a portion of which is performed live. There are a handful of songs sung in the context of the story, mostly performed by band-leader Tito Suarez (Jerome Harmann-Hardeman), but Adrienne Walker and Doug Carpenter croon occasional underscoring as well.

While their strong, under-used voices are appreciated, it is a little odd, especially with Carpenter, who plays Johnny Castle's watermelon-carrying cousin Billy Kostecki. While they are both listed as specific characters and as "Singer" in the program, no differentiation is made on stage to make clear whether they are part of the narrative or not.

Also, the music that is included is often severely truncated versions of the songs used in the film; teasing the audience with something enjoyable and recognizable, only to rip it away moments later. Rather than occasionally and ham-handedly attempting to shoehorn songs into the adapted script, the creators would have been better served to hue even closer to the film, and simply use the original soundtrack in a shot-for-shot stage recreation. What they have now is little more than a well-danced, theatrical equivalent of super-fans singing along with THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW.

The story takes place at Kellerman's resort in the Catskills during the summer of 1963, where the Houseman family is vacationing. The family's daughter, Baby (Rachel Boone), becomes involved with the hotel's dance instructor, Johnny Castle (Christopher Tierney), leading her to break the angelic image that her father (Mark Elliot Wilson) has of her.

Doug Carpenter and Rachel Boone
Photo Credit: Matthew Murphy

While Boone is adorably wide-eyed throughout the play, she is one of the few to give more than a two-dimensional, hackneyed portrayal. Tierney's Castle is flat and completely without the depth and charm that made Swayze a heartthrob almost 30 years ago, and Wilson substitutes bombast and preening for the pathos and honor of Jerry Orbach's film portrayal.

Jenny Winton plays Castle's dance partner Penny, who finds herself in need of help from both Baby and her father. Though a remarkable dancer, her lack of acting experience was evident.

As Baby's square sister Lisa, Alex Scolari provides much of the show's humor, especially in her iconic Hula song, even though it does go on a little longer than necessary. While a little Lisa likely goes a long way, I found myself wishing that we had more of her than nearly any other character but Baby.

The actors are not helped by the show's atrocious dialogue, which Eleanor Bergstein adapted from her own screenplay. What seemed innocent and sweet in the realistic, period-specific scope of film, seems cheesy and laughable on stage. The script so speeds through the character introductions in favor of finding the first major conflict that the audience is not given the opportunity to get to know, or care for, any of the characters. Then on the backend, the second act is so devoid of drama, that it becomes interminable.

What results is a disappointing facsimile of the far superior original that rises above amateur shlock only when the cast is dancing, which is fortunately more often than in most shows. The film choreography by Kenny Ortega is fairly faithfully recreated by Kate Champion, who worked on the original London version of the play (Michele Lynch officially re-staged the North American tour). In addition to the routines lifted from the film, there are a number of new, energetic, Latin-inspired numbers as well. Unsurprisingly, the cast is made up of tremendously talented dancers, which makes the rest of the time nearly tolerable.

Christopher Tierney and the DIRTY DANCING cast
Photo Credit: Matthew Murphy

The show's scenic design (by Stephen Brimson Lewis) painstakingly recreates the look of the film version, and relies heavily on video and projections (by Jon Driscoll) that are so ludicrous, that it borders on parody; especially the famous lift in the water scene. As a whole, the show uses far more technology than is necessary for a simple story of first-love and self-discovery.

Growing up, my siblings and I would watch a VHS of DIRTY DANCING on repeat, with my mom dutifully fast forwarding through the inappropriate parts. So, it is disappointing when a movie so filled with excitement and joy is replaced by a disjointed, pedestrian stage adaptation that only comes to life in the climactic scene, which no amount of mishandling could ruin.

To purchase tickets to DIRTY DANCING: THE CLASSIC STORY ON STAGE, visit the Dr. Phillips website or call 844-513-2014.

Did you enjoy your trip to Kellerman's more than I did? Let me know in the comments below, or by "Liking" and following BWW Orlando on Facebook and Twitter by using the buttons below. You can also chat with me about the show on Twitter @BWWMatt.

Banner Image: Christopher Tierney and Rachel Boone. Photo Credit: Matthew Murphy

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From This Author Matt Tamanini

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