Review: 'DIRTY DANCING THE MUSICAL' at Dallas Summer Musicals
The creativity machine that vicissitudes motion pictures into stage musicals continues its metamorphosis, churning, whizzing, and cranking out each season at least two or three of this genre. The end result for them is quite vast in terms of artistry and the box office. Just this past season Broadway brought An American in Paris, which was one of the most artistically ravishing musicals transferred onto the stage that I have ever seen. When it comes to bringing celluloid to the stage boards, they can go down drastically different paths. They may not receive huzzahs from the critics, but the audiences flock to it regardless due to their love for that particular movie. Or it does receive critical praise, but suffers at the box office. Or they hit the gold mine when it is met with raves from the critics and the audiences come in droves. The more familiarity that the film has and a devoted fan base, the better chance it has a life on the stage. Dallas Summer Musicals brought Tuesday night the latest movie becoming a stage musical with Dirty Dancing.
In 1987 a cast of unknowns traveled to Lake Lure North Carolina to film a low budgeted film titled Dirty Dancing. The screenplay was by Eleanor Bergstein, which was based on her childhood. She was the youngest daughter of a Jewish Doctor who took the family to the Catskills for summer vacation. Bergstein was actually called “Baby” by her family. Director Emile Ardolino and Choreographer Kenny Ortega (who would later achieve great success with Disney’s High School Musical trilogy) sought out dancers who could act. They immediately agreed on Tony/Oscar winner Joel Grey’s daughter Jennifer. For the role of Johnny they needed an Italian with dark exotic features. They went with Billy Zane, but the screen test between Zane and Grey bombed due to zero chemistry and Zane’s very limited dance background. A second round of auditions brought Patrick Swayze.
Swayze’s mother was a dancer & choreographer, so it was already in his genes to become a dancer. But the casting of Swayze came with baggage. Grey and Swayze worked previously in the film Red Dawn and did not get along while working on that film. But their Dirty Dancing screen test sizzled with chemistry immediately, and Swayze got the role (who was changed from Italian to Irish). Others in the film’s cast included several Broadway stars. Such as Jerry Orbach, who originated the role of Billy Flynn in Chicago, Kelly Bishop who originated the role of Sheila in A Chorus Line and Lonny Price. Price was in the original cast of Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along. He would achieve greater success as a director with such productions as Falsettoland, Company, and the 2007 revival of 110 in the Shade starring Audra McDonald. He also co-wrote, directed, and starred in A Class Act (based on the life of Edward Kleban, who wrote the lyrics for A Chorus Line).
During filming the relationship between Swayze and Grey went hot and cold. Director Ardolino pushed his cast to improvise and ad-lib. One the film’s most famous scenes came out of that. It was when Swayze was teaching Grey the choreography and his hand went down Grey’s arm, but instead of it becoming sensual, Grey kept breaking character and giggled over and over, which infuriated Swayze. Those images you see in the film are real reactions of Swayze’s anger and Grey’s laughter.
This low budget film became a box office sensation. When it went to video (ah, remember VHS?) it was the first film to sell over a million copies. The soundtrack went platinum several times over and also had several hit singles. The song "(I've Had) The Time of My Life" won the Academy Award for Best Song. So with all that background, with a mega hit soundtrack and lots of dancing, well this film was practically tailored and gift wrapped for it to become a stage musical.
But it was not given its debut in America, but instead in Sydney Australia in November 2004 at the Theatre Royal. The musical went on a massively successful tour through Australia and New Zealand. The production shut down after that to make changes and retool some of the book, resulting in a new production opening in Hamburg Germany in March 2006; during its run there it broke box office records by achieving the highest advance in ticket sales in European history. The musical then went to the London’s West End in October 2006 with a staggering £11 million advance which resulted in it becoming the longest running musical in the history of the Aldwych Theatre (where it played). The musical ended its West End run in July 2011 and went on a two-year UK national tour and then returned back to London for a strictly limited season at the Piccadilly Theatre. During this time there was major talk and buzz to bring the musical to Broadway, but it never came to fruition. Thankfully Dallas Summer Musicals brought it to the Music Hall Tuesday evening (running through July 5th).
Let’s get the problems within the show out of the way. The book, which is by Eleanor Bergstein took her screenplay and planted it right on stage. Several scenes were verbatim like her screenplay, such as the scene between Baby on the porch telling her father “But Daddy you failed me too”. The book is choppy and disheveled. It desperately tries to recreate frame by frame the screen version onto the stage boards. At times it works somewhat well, but then it becomes clunky and the emotion really doesn’t translate well. Several of the classic film scenes are on stage. Such as the progress of Baby learning the choreography, including the scene where she dances alone on the dock. The scene of Johnny and Baby on the huge log and learning the lift in the water is there too. Bergstein tries to add dramatic conflict but the end result looks like she’s desperately trying to squish a square peg into a tiny round circle, it just doesn’t fit. She has added dialogue that has some of the summer staff who are college boys going to Mississippi to join the civil rights movement. A campfire scene is added to explain this with a voice over of Martin Luther King’s I have dream speech while the cast sings acapella bits of patriotic songs (This land is your land, etc.). It just does not come off genuine or authentic.
She tweaked some changes within her screenplay as well. No longer is it an elderly couple that are the pick pocket thieves, but instead just one elderly man. The role of the Vivian (the Milf who chases Johnny) has been whittled down so much for the stage. So much so that when she strikes back at Johnny for pushing away her advances (first displayed way into Act II), it comes out of nowhere because it was never established from the get go.
The scenes seem to either move so fast without a solid transition or it seems to sputter and clunk out to get to the next scene that it becomes confusing and not fluid.
When the musical begins we see Baby packing for the family summer vacation, dead center is a massive scrim where from behind we see the bodies of dancers are writhing and dancing. She looks at them, and we start hearing a female voice sing. But it is not Baby singing, if fact no one is on stage. It takes you a few minutes to realize it’s an offstage voice singing. Thus begins the second major problem.
I completely get what Bergstein and the production team were going for here with so many of the songs sung off stage. I am pretty sure that at times they used the actual recordings of the original songs in some scenes. This “theme” reminds me of the Tony Award winning dance musical Contact (which I saw on Tour).
In Dirty Dancing, the center panel on the set would rise into the fly rail to reveal the live band and singers off and on throughout the evening. This brought back memories of when I saw on Broadway the original cast of Twyla Tharp’s masterpiece Movin Out. This musical had the dancers do choreography all evening long, but never sang. Instead placed above the cast was the entire rock band and a lone male vocalist (Michael Cavanaugh) singing solo & playing the piano all evening long. The score came from the music catalogue of Billy Joel. Cavanaugh even earned a Tony nomination as Best Featured Actor in a Musical for his efforts.
These are methods that are created for Dirty Dancing. It looked and felt bizarre, strange, and weird that neither Baby nor Johnny sang a single song. Nada. Zilch. Zero. The majority of the songs were sung off stage, or the original recordings, or other characters sang live on stage. A couple of songs were sung by Tito the band leader. All of the songs sung on stage were done by the same male and female cast member (who are given credit in the Playbill as “specialties”). You desperately wanted Baby and Johnny to at least sing “I’ve Had the Time of My life”, but they don’t. In another head scratching moment, one of the film’s most famous songs, “She’s Like the Wind” is not sung whatsoever. It instead becomes orchestration background to help move the dramatic conflicts that occur on stage. This song SCREAMS for Johnny to sing on stage. It doesn’t happen.
What does help make the material work here is the extraordinary cast. I will say it was perplexing on how small of an ensemble this national tour has. Normally national tours have over a dozen members to make up the ensemble, here it looks like 6-8 total. Nonetheless they do a fantastic job of having to play a plethora of roles all evening long. They bring bubbling, thrilling, sexy, and wild energy to the execution of the choreography. This chorus also is one of the sexiest group of ensemble members within a national tour! The men and women of this ensemble are physically gorgeous looking that they all could be sensual runway/print models! Their big choreographed numbers are some of the best moments of the evening, especially the finale. The members of this slinky and steamy ensemble are John Antony, Rachel Boone, Amanda Brantley, Rashaan James II, Joshua Keith, Phoebe Pearl, Virginia Preston, Adam Roberts, Jennlee Shallow, and Christopher Tierney.
Providing first rate performances include Mark Elliot Wilson and Caralyn Kozlowski as Baby’s parents; Jerome Harmann-Hardeman as the band leader Tito Suarez, Scott McCreary as the slime ball Robbie (the college guy that knocks up Penny), and Ryan Jesse as Neil Kellerman, the nephew of the owner who is learning the ropes of management. Emily Rice who portrays Baby’s older sister Lisa did a hysterical rendition of the Hawaiian theme song titled “Lisa’s Hula” for her audition to be in the resort’s talent show. She in fact achieves bigger laughs than the film version of this number.
It is a shame that the role of Vivian Pressman was not fully fleshed out and given a solo number. Amanda Brantley who is in this role is full of Va-Va-Voom sexiness. Now, the actress in the film was older, while Ms. Brantley is clearly much younger in the stage production. With her blonde wig and sexy curves, she honestly looks like Marilyn Monroe. In fact when she is costumed in a black sparkling cocktail gown for one scene I swore she looks like Megan Hilty as Monroe doing a number from the TV series Smash! Brantley still delivers the goods even though the book and lack of score lets this character stay in the sidelines.
Herman Petras provides a big dose of comedy as the wallet stealing octogenarian Mr. Schumacher. When he auditions for the resort talent show he achieves some of the biggest laughs of the night.
Jenny Winton portrays Penny Johnson, which Cynthia Rhodes created for the silver screen. Ms. Winton has the body and looks that cause men to bump into walls because they can’t take their eyes off of her. This exquisitely looking girl has a pair of legs that go on forever. Her performance causes the audience to fall in love with her. So again, it is a major disappointment her character is not given a single solo. Thankfully we have Winton’s flawless dancing to enjoy. Her execution of the ballroom and Latin choreography is spectacular to watch. When she throws that leg straight up and then spins with soft ease, it is breathtaking to watch. Her dancing reminds you of the MGM dance goddess Cyd Charisse.
The two stand out performances from the supporting cast are easily Jennlee Shallow and Doug Carpenter. Ms. Shallow is part of the ensemble, but she is the sole female singer who sings live on stage several numbers. She possesses a creamy, sensual, and belting soprano voice that explodes with song throughout the evening. Several of her solos were met with loud applause and cheers from Tuesday’s audience.
Doug Carpenter portrays Billy Kostecki, who is a co-worker and close friend to Johnny and Penny. Carpenter is encased in riveting stage presence. This highly talented actor is stuck in a thread bare book that doesn’t give him much to work with on paper, but his acting craft ignores that and instead he creates a fully fleshed out character. Now, I could be wrong be here, but I can only go by what I am assuming Bergstein was trying to explore and show to the audience (what very little there was in dialogue). But it looked from my point of view that Billy (Carpenter) had a serious crush or was in love with Jennlee Shallow’s ensemble character. There was a scene where he approached her to dance only to be beaten to the punch by another male asking her to dance. He then sings atop of a staircase looking at her the familiar ballad, “In The Still Of The Night”.
Carpenter’s vocal rendition of this classic pop song becomes the showstopper vocal number of the evening. He has a superior tenor voice that sails into his upper register with remarkable clarity. Then at the end of the solo, he belts a long, sustaining tenor note that caused the audience to reward him with deafening cheers and applause.
Carpenter and Shallow also sing the duet of the Academy Award winning song “(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life” which is the finale. These two dazzling performers sell that song to make it the showstopper number that it demands. Their harmonies are lush with divine, soulful vocal riffs sprinkled throughout the duet. It was so refreshing that these two wisely chose to create their own vocal interpretation of the classic song instead of copying the original. When these two took their curtain call, they were met with a wave of vociferous, wild applause, cheers, and whistles from Tuesday’s audience. Carpenter and Shallow so deserved that response.
Gillian Abbott (as Frances “Baby” Houseman) and Samuel Pergande (as Johnny Castle) have the immense pressure to bring to life the roles that became iconic celluloid performances by Jennifer Grey and Patrick Swayze. Abbott and Pergande achieve glowing success in creating their original characterizations of these roles. Their chemistry is aphrodisiac and romantic. They connect with unbreakable believability. Abbott clearly displays the growth of a young girl in her first serious relationship, while Pergande provides honesty care and protection of this girl giving up her virginity to him. It is tastefully done on stage, but still drips with eroticism.
Abbott is a physically beautiful girl who does slightly look like Jennifer Grey. Pergande’s tightly toned, muscular dancer body and exotic features makes him look like he walked out of an Abercrombie & Fitch catalogue. In several scenes he is shirtless and barefoot, causing several women to start fanning themselves with their playbills!
Both dance superbly, especially with the ballroom and Latin choreography. When they do the well-known dance duet at another resort (Baby offered to replace Penny due to her medical condition), it is a major dance highlight of the evening. They burn the dance floor as they stick like gum to the percussion within the music.
These two explode with energy and dance with one of the most well-known choreographed numbers put on the silver screen, which is the finale with the song “(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life”. When Johnny (Pergande) says the famous line, “No one puts Baby in the corner”, the audience immediately roared with screams and applause. These two (and the ensemble!) bring the house down recreating live that magical dance number. Abbott and Pergande’s execution of the choreography makes you deliriously happy to enjoy from your seat. And when they do the iconic lift (given an extra boot with special lighting design for that moment), well the audience went into frenzy, wild ecstasy of applause, whistles, and cheers.
Samuel Pergande has a background of ballet and dance, and who was in the first national tour of Billy Elliot (as the older Billy doing one of the most beautiful numbers of that musical titled “electricity”). His dancing technique made the evening for me. He truly is the star of the production. He has a dynamic, commanding stage presence that never wains. For Dirty Dancing he has to do an assortment of dance techniques, and he executes each one with superlative results. Be it ballet, ballroom, Latin, or contemporary, he is just incredible to observe as he leaps high into the air, spins, and lands on one knee with finesse. Pergande’s dancing and originality of the character in this production makes you forget Swayze’s wonderful work in the film. Pergande makes it his own, which results in a scene stealing performance.
With all this talent that Abbott and Pergande possess, it is so frustrating that they did not have a single song to sing. No solo or duet. Why? These are the two leads and their characterizations DEMAND to have something to sing. It is a major, major flaw within the book and score that they were not given anything to sing. You could clearly feel the audience leaning in their seats waiting for them to sing. Sadly it never happened.
The choreography by Michele Lynch, which was based on the original film choreography by Kate Champion is fantastic. She brings many of the original dance pieces that made the film such a hit, but also adds her own creativity in dance resulting in outstanding choreography that is executed by a first rate ensemble.
Special applause should also go to the Ballroom and Latin choreography created by Craig Wilson. His work in those numbers transformed those dance sequences into hugely successful dance sequences.
What truly helped in making the problematic book work was the design elements. Stephen Brimson Lewis’s terrific scenic design immediately created the perfect mood. He created a massive fly in center wall that resembled window shutters. These panels created a variety of angles to aid the audience in what area of the resort we were in. On the sides he had panels, and for the ballroom scenes he created a long moving Plexiglas floor unit that moved and turned on its own center stage. This piece was perfectly used for the finale dance duet. He also designed various set pieces that whisked in and out to create the perfect environment. Jon Driscoll’s Video and Projection Design was eye catching sensational! He used the side panels, and dead center was a massive LED projection set piece on which he created a myriad of moving images that truly helped in making the book work. He projected various locations within the Kellerman resort. From the pool, to the golf course, to the guest cabins. Driscoll also has this beautiful lavender sunset that was projected on the video screens.
Lewis and Driscoll were on the same artistic page when it came to create the famous log and river scenes from the film. In the film Johnny and Baby go out to the river and dance on a massive log, then to learn the famous lift they do it right there in the water. For the stage version Lewis designed a massive actual log while Driscoll projected water and tons of green shrubbery. For the river scene Driscoll created a marvelous projection of moving water. Sound Designer Bobby Aitken then added very realistic sounds of water and splashing. The craftsmanship and attention to detail for those two memorable scenes are just superbly designed here.
Tim Mitchell’s lighting design is another layer that greatly supported and helped in achieving the success for those two scenes mentioned above. Throughout the production Mitchell’s designs set the mood with astounding success. Tons of gobos, lighting movement, and framing with light several important moments within the musical are all contained within Mitchell’s fascinating lighting design. His pièce de résistance is the finale. A dizzy swirl of colors, LEDs, Gobos, and special lighting equipment made that final number a phenomenal success! He even has lighting changing colors from inside the Plexiglas moving floor piece!
Dirty Dancing the musical does not try to become that piece that will change the art form of musical theater. If you love the film, then go with that open mind that this is what the creators of this musical want to provide for the die-hard fans of this beloved film. And they do achieve that here. It’s a fun evening with two amazing leads, a dynamite group of supporting players and a fabulous ensemble. They are surrounded by splendid design elements. While I had great issues with the bland, weak book and the confusing decision to not have the principals assigned songs baffling and irritating, it still was a sweet, charming musical that brought to life a beloved film on those stage boards.
*DIRTY DANCING THE MUSICAL (National Tour)
Dallas Summer Musicals at the Music Hall
Plays through July 5, 2015
Single tickets from $20-$93 (pricing subject to change), are online at www.DallasSummerMusicals.org by phone at 1.800.514.ETIX (3849), and at The Box Office, 5959 Royal Lane, Suite 542 in Dallas, TX.
Groups of 10 or more receive a 15% discount, priority seating, and many more benefits. Please call 214.426.GROUP (4768) or email Groups@DallasSummerMusicals.org
*The production will then go to the Bass Performance Hall in Fort Worth to play July 7-12.