It’s the summer of 1963, before the assassination of Kennedy and before the Beatles had risen to fame. Projections of the Catskill Mountains are displayed on the stage. This setting is all too nostalgic for fans of the 1987 film of the same name. Patrons flocked to the Northern Alberta Jubilee Auditorium to see the classic story live on stage, and hopefully fall in love with Johnny Castle all over again.
Classifying Dirty Dancing as a movie based musical isn’t exactly correct. It’s not really a musical. None of the characters sing aside from a couple ensemble members every once in a while. It’s better classified as a play with dancing. That being said, it follows the movie quite closely, telling the story of Baby (Gillian Abbott) who is vacationing with her family at a resort in the Catskills. Less than thrilled to be spending her summer playing games of Simon Says and horseshoes, Baby wanders off, exploring the resort, only to discover how the resort staff unwind at the end of the day. Unlike the traditional fox trot that is taught to the guests at the resort, the staff are found performing “dirty” dance moves and grinding to R&B music. To speed things up, the male dance instructor, Johnny (Christopher Tierney) and his dance partner Penny (Jenny Winton) run into trouble when Penny is knocked up. Johnny is left without a dance partner and Baby volunteers to spend the rest of her summer devoting herself to dance.
Christopher Tierney brought a strong attitude to his portrayal of Johnny with strong body language. And though he certainly wasn’t lacking in physical appeal or dance skills, his acting was lacking at times, making his character seem slightly empty and emotionless at times. Gillian Abbott portrayed Baby with maturity while still maintaining her slight naivety and childlikeness. Although the two managed to bring the nostalgic qualities that the audience wanted to the characters, they still lacked in chemistry together. The relationship between the two seemed slightly awkward and it ended up being hard to tell if they liked each other or not.
The real stars of the show weren’t necessarily the ones with the most stage time. Standout performances came from many actors playing supporting roles or those in the ensemble. Jenny Winton, as Penny Johnson, displayed incredible dance skills throughout the entire show, making Johnny and Baby’s final dance scene seem almost lackluster. Another standout was Adrienne Walker, whose powerhouse vocals were refreshing in what was otherwise a play with dancing.
A nod must also go to those in charge of the technical elements of the show. Tim Mitchell’s lighting design was presented seamlessly, adding both flare and subtlety as needed. The visual projections displayed on the stage throughout the show, designed by Jon Driscoll, seemed overly cheesy at points, but it seemed to work in this show, perhaps because it itself is mostly just a cheesy love story…with dancing. What helped was the staging, by director James Powell, who understood that a scene that was filmed in the water in the movie version, wouldn’t be easy to perform on stage, so instead of making the scene serious and causing it to come across as awkward, the actors behind the water projection performed it in a humorous manner, making it still awkward, but the kind of awkward that you can appreciate and laugh at.
Is Dirty Dancing a work of theatrical genius? No. Is it the type of high impact show that leaves audiences inspired? No. But is it a show filled with lively dancing, and plenty of nostalgia value. Fans of the movie will appreciate the memories, and theatre goers will experience a show that is simply fun and entertaining. Whether it’s entertaining enough to justify the ticket price is up to the individual, but who says that every show has be thought provoking and moving? Dirty Dancing is a show for those simply looking to be entertained for a few hours, and have a few laughs. That being said, it’s not for everyone. Those who are okay with that type of experience will enjoy it, others should avoid it.