Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Chicago

Dirty Dancing
Cadillac Palace Theatre

Josef Brown, Amanda Leigh Cobb
and Britta Lazenga

Give the producers credit for truth in advertising. The show is called Dirty Dancing: The Classic Story on Stage, not Dirty Dancing—The Musical, and by her own admission author Eleanor Bergstein says her goal was to create "a new kind of theatrical event ... more of a play-with-a-lot-of-music than a traditional musical." Its 1987 feature film predecessor was perhaps the last big hit of a subgenre that reinvented the movie musical for a time, beginning with 1977's Saturday Night Fever and continuing through Fame, Flashdance and Footloose. In these films, the characters didn't sing on screen (at least not unless the character was in performance, as in Fame), but they danced to express their emotional heights, accompanied by original songs on the soundtrack that commented on their feelings. Fever, Fame and Footloose have all been re-imagined as traditional stage musicals, with poor-to-middling results, so one can understand the Dirty Dancing creators' decision to stick more closely to the conventions of the non-musical. Even so, Ms. Bergstein, who adapted her original screenplay for the stage, hasn't quite succeeded in making this Dirty Dancing soar in the way the aforementioned movie musicals did, nor has she really created an entirely stageworthy script.

The story, characters and dialogue of the film are virtually intact, but they don't always play on stage as they did on screen. Some scenes are too short and end flatly on lines that might have worked when followed by a quick cut to the next scene, but die when they have to wait for even a speedy transition in this slick high tech production. Much of the music is underscored and a fair amount pre-recorded. (This is one stage show for which it would be fair to call its cast album a "soundtrack.") Program notes boast that Ms. Bergstein was able to get rights to songs she had sought for the film. In all, some 50 songs are listed in the program, many of which have little connection to the actions or their underlying emotions, and only a few are developed enough to become big numbers.

In translating a popular film to the stage, one can't underestimate the power of the film stars' charisma and the ability of the close-up to establish rapport with the audience. In this case, mere transcription of the film's dialogue isn't enough to create the same bond with the much-loved film characters created by Jennifer Grey, Patrick Swayze and Jerry Orbach. As Grey's character Frances "Baby" Houseman, Amanda Leigh Cobb is likable enough. Her leading man, Josef Brown, has all the looks, body and dancing ability one could hope for in a Johnny Castle, but his acting is as stiff as his dancing is agile. Same goes for the wooden John Bolger as Baby's father. Kaitlin Hopkins, underused in the smallish role of Baby's mom, has the best luck in establishing empathy. Director James Powell hasn't led his cast to do anything too unexpected with their characters, and the performances overall are pretty flat, as if they've all been cast more for their dancing than acting skills.

The production looks great, though. Relying mostly on video and still projections to establish the woodsy setting of Kellerman's Mountain Lodge, video and projection designer Jon Driscoll cleverly pastes the outdoor photography onto Stephen Brimson Lewis's white unit set, with props and small set pieces added to provide three-dimensionality. The scenes in which Baby and Johnny practice their lifts are impressively recreated through video projections on a scrim, giving the illusions of the two being in a wheat field and a lake. The costume designs of Jennifer Irwin perfectly capture the clean-cut late-'50s look of the early sixties and, together with the scenic design, do a great job of establishing time and place.

As good as the ensemble is, it's a shame there isn't more ... dancing! Bergstein's script hews so closely to her screenplay—even adding scenes and songs—that even at a long-feeling two and a half hours of stage time, there's not a lot of time for choreographer Kate Campion's production numbers. It's a wait to get to the cathartic finale: the film's Academy Award winning song "I've Had the Time of My Life," with Ben Mingay perfectly channeling Bill Medley over the knockout dancing of Brown and Ms. Cobb, even recreating Swayze's iconic leap off the stage and Baby's triumphant lift (unnecessarily reinforced by live video projected upstage).

This show's been around for four years in Australia, Europe and Toronto before its U.S. opening in Chicago. From here, it's scheduled to move to Boston and Los Angeles before a Broadway opening next season. If it's been profitable for four years, the producers may not want to tinker with it, but if it were my money, I'd be on the phone calling whatever 911 service could get me to the likes of Jerry Mitchell or Casey Nicholaw because Dirty Dancing feels like it could really work as a stage musical—even as the sort of non-traditional one Ms. Bergstein is picturing. A script doctor could help Ms. Bergstein better adapt her script for the stage, pare the score down to only the most important and effective songs, and let them leap in the emotional places where successful musicals go.

Dirty Dancing will play the Cadillac Palace Theatre through January 17, 2009. Tickets available through Ticketmaster or at Broadway in Chicago box offices.

Photo: David Scheinmenn

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