A Passionless Dirty Dancing Has Two Left Feet

The set up:

The story of how Dirty Dancing came to be is as Tinseltown-ready as the film itself. The year was 1987 and Eleanor Bergstein had written a dance movie of the Flashdance/Footloose variety but with somewhat more realistic characters and issue stuff like abortion and class snobbery thrown into the mix. The studio hated it. Initial test audiences hated it. Yet by some miracle the film got shown and, mimicking the perfect Hollywood happy ending, grossed just under $214 million worldwide, won an Oscar and several Grammy's for the music and became the dominant album on the charts for weeks on end.

Fast forward to 2004 and Bergstein decided that no one puts Dirty Dancing in the corner. She dusted off the script, adapted it for the stage, brought in director James Powell and choreographer Michele Lynch (to channel Kate Champion's original dance vision), added some additional music and scenes and kicked off an Australian tour. From there the show has been seen in Germany, London, Holland and South Africa with records broken for advance sales and production runs in many of the stops.

The global appeal of Dirty Dancing - The Classic Story Onstage, as it's fully titled, is now getting its North American litmus test in a multi city tour. Whether it's as big a hit here as overseas remains to be seen as Houston is one of the early stops in the run. But as we all know, hit and critical acclaim don't always go hand in hand or two step to two step in this case. Sure we loved the movie in North America. Or loved to hate it in some cases. No one can argue that. But let's cast aside nostalgia and gooey teenage memories from the late '80s and see if the play lives up to the hype on its own merits.


The execution:

Dirty Dancing isn't so much an adaptation as it is a plonking of the movie down upon the stage in a short succession of flashcard-like scenes. It's the summer of 1963 and 17 -year-old Frances 'Baby Houseman' (Jillian Mueller) is on vacation with her parents (Mark Elliot Wilson and Carolyn Kozlowski) and sister Lisa (Emily Rice) at the Kellerman resort in the Catskills. Smitten by the resort staffs' manner of passionate dancing on their off hours and even more smitten by head dance instructor Johnny Castle (Samuel Pergande), Baby begins to shed her good girl persona for the sake of dance, but mostly for the sake of her attraction to Castle.

All the characters you remember are there. The lines you can quote up and down are quoted exactly the same as you recall from the movie. And there was no way they weren't going to include those famous song and dance sequences, all of which play out step by step (or close enough to it) on cue with what transpired on film . So really, what makes this production any different than renting the movie and watching it comfortably at home in your jammies with a bucket of ice cream and some popcorn?

One word. Charisma. Specifically the lack of it.

Not one single performer in the entire production has it. Nor for that matter do any of them have one ounce of passion for their character, their fellow cast members, the music or the choreography. Chief offender is Pergande whose Johnny is agonizingly wooden in his dialogue and unforgivably antiseptic in all his dance numbers. So much so that no amount of chiselled chest shirtlessness can make his dancing with Baby or the staff anything even close to sexy. Wilson as Baby's father comes in a close second in the list of performers painful to behold. I would have thought it impossible for an actor to take already hackneyed lines such as "our Baby is good stuff" and "I know you weren't the one that got Penny in trouble" and make them even harder to listen to, but Wilson with nursery school teacher sing-song cadence and no fatherly warmth whatsoever butchers the lines and leaves us cold. Even Mueller, who tries to bring some personality to Baby, ends up being vanilla having no one worthy to play off of. It's as though the entire cast was operating in a bubble with no one listening or reacting to each other.

In fairness, a great deal of the issues with the acting and dancing are caused by the whiplash short scenes that comprise the play. Under the direction of James Powell, moments are routinely sapped of tension and drama leaving no time for character development or for us to feel an iota of affection or attraction to anyone. Yes the movie was a series of one narrative cliché after another, but what made Bergstein's vision work on screen was that we were given the space and engagement point to care about these characters. More importantly, we were made to feel the searing passion between Baby and Johnny, the sexy coolness of the staffers' modern dance and the heart-warnming love between Baby and her dad. So sure, we knew it was pulp, but our emotions were involved so we loved it anyway.

The other issue working against the production is that Dirty Dancing isn't really a musical. Yes, there is music, but never once does a character in the story actually sing. This works fine on screen where we are all quite used to actors saying and even doing nothing while the soaring soundtrack cues us in on how to feel. Close up shots and the like make this palatable to our sensibilities. But on stage, it simply doesn't work. We get a lot of Baby wandering around looking dazed and confused while the music plays for our supposed enjoyment. Or we get non character singers trying desperately to fit in with the narrative as they belt out the tunes. This was the case with the climax (I've Had) The Time of My Life number where Johnny and Baby do the famous dance lift. Powell throws two singers at the front of the stage to serenade us while the number goes on, distracting from what should be the highlight of the show.

But I'll take this distraction over the one major new scene that Bergstein included in the stage version. In what can only be described as an afterthought, guilty politically-correct inclusion, the well-heeled guests and mixed race staff at Kellerman's gather around a campfire to listen to approximately 30 seconds of Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream Speech", take up a collection for the Freedom Riders and then bob and weave to a rendition of 'We Shall Overcome'. Embarrassing doesn't even begin to describe the addition. Never mind that in 1963 at a resort in the Catskills, race relations were the furthest thing from the minds of the guests, this slight wafting over the issues is pandering padding at best that plays out like a cringe worthy insult to just about everyone.

Stylistically though, Dirty Dancing has some interesting things to offer. Stephen Brimson Lewis' set design is extremely minimal, allowing Jon Driscoll's full back wall of video projections to do the heavy lifting in setting scene and mood. In certain cases the videos work splendidly. The lake scene where Baby and Johnny practice their lifts is a clever combination of transparent scrim and projection that allows the actors to look like they are in fact in the middle of a body of water. Almost every outdoor scene is greatly enhanced by Driscoll's realistic and sharp projections ranging from rain storms to sunny golf courses. However once the action moves inside, the video element quickly becomes lost and redundant. Projections of dancers inside the staff quarters where the staff are already dancing are pointless and at no time do the images of the inside of Kellerman's add anything of interest.

Powell has placed his far too loud live band on a second story level of the stage that gets revealed and shuttered off as scenes progress. Again a distraction to the action onstage. We know there is going to be music. Stop trying to hide the musicians/singers on stage doing the job of a movie soundtrack. Better yet, stop trying to force this flawed but beloved story onto the stage in the first place.

The verdict:

Opening night was full of hardcore fans that whooped and hollered at the mere anticipation of Johnny declaring that, "No one puts Baby in a corner". Did they actually like the way it was portrayed onstage (bereft of any emotion whatsoever) or were they simply luxuriating in the molasses of nostalgia? My guess would be the latter. Given the lack of anything resembling a compelling love story or even a hot dance show on stage, I simply can't fathom that anyone new to the show would grasp why Dirty Dancing has become such a global phenomenon. Take away our affection for the characters, the lustful dance scenes and the swoon worthiness of the love story, and the time of our lives is definitely not been had viewing this show.

Dirty Dancing - The Classic Story Onstage continues through November 23 at the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts, 800 Bagby Street. Purchase tickets online at $111 - $53.40.

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Jessica Goldman was the theater critic for CBC Radio in Calgary prior to joining the Houston Press team. Her work has also appeared in American Theatre Magazine, Globe and Mail and Alberta Views. Jessica is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association.
Contact: Jessica Goldman