Friday, August 21, 2015

Not Quite the Time of My Life, but 'Dirty Dancing' Onstage is Rather Likable, With Few Missteps -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Dirty Dancing
Cadillac Palace, Chicago
Thru August 30

In terms of true artistic merit, Dirty Dancing has little reason to exist onstage.

Though technically a musical, it offers no newly-written songs, too few of the old ones are sung live and the show makes no pretense of using the music and lyrics to drive the onstage action. 

Billing itself as "The Classic Story on Stage," it is much less a theatrical reinterpretation than merely a live re-enactment of a beloved film.

In the apparently non-Equity production now playing at the Cadillac Palace in Chicago--where it ran "pre-Broadway" in 2008 (though never got there) following West End success in London--none of the performances are notably deficient, but neither are the leads particularly distinctive or charismatic, at least as discerned from my upper balcony perch.

I doubt avid fans of the 1987 Dirty Dancing film starring Jennifer Grey and Patrick Swayze would espouse that the stage version outdoes it, and especially given the entertainment value-to-cost ratio, watching the movie would seem sufficiently satisfying for most.

That said, I found myself enjoying the live version of Dirty Dancing much more than I expected.

Photos by Matthew Murphy; male star depicted not the same as in Chicago cast.
Though not a great musical by any means, and no substantive enhancement on the movie--despite a few non-film scenes that worked in the Civil Rights movement and added some depth to the family dynamics--for what it is, Dirty Dancing: The Classic Story on Stage is well-done and even rather likable.

I can't recall specifics of the show in 2008, and am surprised that I had last seen it that long ago, but remember not liking it much--as substantiated by the low rating in my theater database--perhaps largely due to the abundance of recorded music and video projections.

So it may be due to a general watering down of the production values of many newer musicals, and an overabundance of mediocre stageworks based on popular movies, that Dirty Dancing now seems relatively pleasing in comparison.

If nothing else, it is considerably better than the other stage production based on an iconic Patrick Swayze movie: Ghost: The Musical.

It never made me want to get up and dance, but given the well-paced script by Eleanor Bergstein--who also wrote the movie, based on her own experiences--attractive performers, impressive footwork and some excellent singing (on too rare opportunities), Dirty Dancing never stoked my ire or made me wish I hadn't made the trek to the Loop from Skokie for the Broadway in Chicago presentation.

Christopher Tierney, a veteran of Chicago's Hubbard Street Dance company, looked good and danced well in the Patrick Swayze role of Johnny Castle, a dance instructor at a Catskills resort in 1963. (I've long been fascinated with the rise, existence and fall of the Borscht Belt and just watched a good documentary on Kutscher's, the resort--along with Grossinger's--said to be the inspiration for Kellerman's in Dirty Dancing.)

Gillian Abbott makes for a likable and believable Baby, while former Joffrey member Jenny Winton is a pleasurably striking presence to watch on dance numbers with Tierney.

But just as impressive as the actual stars of the show are the supporting players who vocalize the sparse selection of live tunes. These include Jerome Harmann-Hardeman as Tito (the longstanding crooner at Kellerman's), Jennilee Shallow, John Antony and Doug Carpenter.

Between them, separately and together, they belt out strong versions of "Do You Love Me?," "You Don't Own Me," "In the Still of the Night (I'll Remember)" and the movie's signature song, "(I've Had) The Time of My Life," accompanied by a live band onstage.

The program notes that the show includes songs not in the movie--such as "Save the Last Dance for Me"--that Bergstein had wanted but couldn't secure for the screen.

So the material and music is far from awful, and with some nice segues--aided by the use of video projections in lieu of much physical scenery--the pacing is good.

And though most of the dialogue echoes the movie--which I had watched the night before for the first time in ages--it does work in more references to MLK and Civil Rights, which are generally welcome if a bit slight (though the listening to the "I Have a Dream" speech at a campfire mid-show is chronologically suspect, as Dr. King's delivered it on August 28, 1963 rather than in midsummer).

I'm not sure if Bergstein simply restored scenes she had initially wanted to be in the movie, but though seemingly used in part to pad Act II, I felt a few moments between Baby and her mom (Margot White) were nice additions, as well as a bit more interaction between Baby and her sister Lisa (Alex Scolari).

The late-show exchange between Baby and her father (Mark Elliot Wilson) feels like it could be well-supported by a song--even if a newly-written one--and also suggests that Dirty Dancing might make for a fairly decent traditional musical if not so theoretically boxed in by the expectations of movie aficionados.

As it is, Dirty Dancing onstage is something of a strange theatrical hybrid, and as it neither equals its source film nor stands as a stellar musical or play, it's hard to really recommend it.

But if you have a soft spot for the movie, and understand going into the theater that this isn't a Hairspray or Billy Elliot-type screen-to-stage musical adaptation but largely just the movie unfolding live before your eyes, I think you may actually enjoy it.

The material is what it is, as is the conceit, but everyone onstage at the Cadillac Palace enacts it well--and rather buoyantly.

So while you may not have the time of your life, and might even imagine how this Dirty Dancing could well be a good bit better, you wouldn't be disingenuous to get up on your feet at the end and bestow a standing ovation, as did much of the crowd on the show's first night in Chicago.

If it's not nearly the best thing ever to take centerstage, well, nobody puts Baby in a corner, either.

No comments: