Like the 1989 film, this Dirty Dancing follows the experiences of Frances “Baby” Houseman during a three-week vacation with her family at a resort in the Catskill Mountains in 1963. Baby is about to go to college before entering the Peace Corps, but she discovers “dirty dancing” when she comes across the staff quarters. Baby quickly learns about romance (with lead dance instructor Johnny), dancing, and standing up for what you believe.
The book for the stage version is by original screenwriter Eleanor Bergstein, and closely follows the movie. The show is extremely unique in that, though it sounds and feels like a traditional musical, it isn’t. None of the lead performers ever sing. All of the songs, which can be heard practically nonstop, are either performance numbers or (more frequently) background music. The film had a great soundtrack with many memorable songs, both period (“Do You Love Me”, “You Don’t Own Me”, “In The Still of the Night”) and new (“Hungry Eyes”, “(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life”), and the vast majority of the songs from it are repeated in the stage version. Some songs are performed by ensemble members backed by the talented, above-the-stage live band led by Alan J. Plado, many are instrumental only, and others are pre-recorded.
The live incarnation is basically just a recreation of the film on stage. While the familiarity with the material provides a nostalgic level of enjoyment, there are cons to this approach as well. Without any book songs, the audience gets no additional character insight normally associated with musicals. Character depth is often provided on film via close-ups, but without this or songs in the live version, the characters only scratch the surface level. The live show maintains the cinematic flow of the movie, but that means there are a number of very short scenes/vignettes, which on stage come across as a bit clunky. Additionally, some of the songs seem shoehorned in for the sake of presenting them. Still, the story itself is intriguing, and full of romance, historical significance, suspense, and humor.
Director James Powell accurately captures the spirit of the piece, and maintains a quick pace, and puts a lot of energy onto the stage. Kate Champion, Michele Lynch, and Craig Wilson provide almost constant choreography which is athletic, sexy, and a treat for the eyes.
As Baby, Jillian Mueller, who was seen in Cincinnati last season as the lead in Flashdance, is endearing and spunky, and provides a strong emotional arc for her character. Samuel Pergande has the looks, charisma, and dancing ability needed for Johnny, and is a fine actor as well. Jenny Winton (Penny), Mark Elliot Wilson (Dr. Houseman), and Caralyn Kozlowski (Majorie Houseman) are among the many talented supporting and ensemble members who do well in their respective roles. The primary vocals are provided by Jennlee Shallow and Doug Carpenter, who both impress with their singing throughout, and especially with the ending “(I’ve Had) The Time Of My Life”.
Stephen Brimson Lewis very effectively incorporates video and projections by Jon Driscoll into his set design. The videos make up the bulk of the visuals, supplemented by smaller set pieces and some sliding panels. The overall look is very cinematic, provides for some very humorous moments, and helps transition from one scene to the next smoothly. The lighting by Tim Mitchell is professionally rendered and apt, and Jennifer Irwin’s costumes are attractive and period appropriate.
Dirty Dancing is an extremely well-liked movie, so it makes sense to try to capture the magic of the film on stage through a careful recreation. All of the iconic moments from the movie are present, and strong performances, familiar music, energetic dancing, and worthwhile direction and design are likely to leave the vast majority of audience members satisfied. Still, it’s odd to have a show that appears to be a musical, but which features very little singing, and none from its lead characters. Some audience members are bound to be left feeling like the creators took the easy way out in crafting a stage version.