Review: 'Dirty Dancing' National Tour (Clearwater, FL)

Melinda Zupaniotis 

  • Florida Critic

BOTTOM LINE:  This is not a musical, it is a dance show where music is played, with some singing and a sprinkling of acting.  Die-hard nostalgics will enjoy this copy of the film, otherwise, just watch the movie onbasic cable. Currently on tour in the US. 


I was given the tickets.  I don’t think I would have purchased them on my own.  In fact, the people who gave me the tickets didn’t purchase them, either – they were won as part of a charity silent auction package.  Having recently moved to Florida from the New York – Tri-State area, I thought this would be a great way to explore my adopted town with one of my new friends, while also checking the cultural pulse of the region at the local Mecca of theatre and concert presentations.

Ruth Eckerd Hall is beautiful.  Mutli-colored lights change the appearance of the façade and its large footprint has many entrances.  There appears to be ample parking, and there are a lot of parking attendants, including valets, to assist in directing one to the right area.  On the flipside, one must allow for unlimited time exiting the parking lot, as it becomes somewhat of a debacle post-show.  The inside of the theater is a swirling maze of restrooms and vendors, serving wine, beer and popcorn, as well as show swag for whatever is playing that night.  In the instance of Dirty Dancing, there was also the installation of a selfie wall, where one could pose in front of a pink drop, emblazoned with the catch-phrase, “I Had The Time Of My Life.”  Although I really wanted to partake in this, I resisted and made my way to our seats.

I wish the designers of the venue had thought ahead a little more, as it is laid out with continental seating - each row stretches from one wall to the other, with no cut-through aisles.  Yes, this allows for a few extra seats, I’m sure, but it also allows for much frustration by constantly having to make way for row-mates, especially those annoying late-arrivals (and there were a lot!).  Additionally, with a full row in orchestra seating, some seats are placed on a strange curve, as mine was, so I wasn’t really square with the stage – something that never exited my awareness.

But, enough about the theater – how about the show?? 

Dirty Dancing’s stage incarnation is tightly based on the 1987 film, now celebrating its 30th anniversary.  In fact, the adaptation is so tight that, if like me, one saw the film a gazillion times and knows every word, one will be able to speak the lines along with the performers.  With the exception of an added storyline that enhanced the themes of war and equality, the stage show is a verbatim retelling of the film. This is understandable, as the screenplay writer, Eleanor Bergstein, also conceived and wrote the stage show.  There are also 47 musical entries in the show – most are from the film, but some are songs that were originally intended to be in the film, but licensing was not granted.  I guess Dirty Dancing has enough clout now to be granted those licenses.  I will get back to the music, but first, let’s talk about the story.

Actually, let’s not talk about the story…you know the story.  If you are too young to know the story, ask your mom to dig up her VHS copy of the film.  Trust me, she has it somewhere! But the truth is, if you don’t know the story, you probably wouldn’t be interested in this show, anyway. So…moving on…

Jillian Mueller and Christopher Tierney play Frances “Baby” Houseman and Johnny Castle, respectively.  From Row T, it was extremely hard to distinguish Ms. Mueller from Jennifer Grey, who played Baby in the film.  Mr. Tierney, a former ballet dancer, was graceful and beautiful to look at, plus, if you closed your eyes, you heard Patrick Swayze’s voice delivering the lines with the same timber and cadences as the film. Jennifer Mealani Jones, a Season 10 dancer on So You Think You Can Dance, performed Penny’s choreography incredibly.  She is graceful and lithe and made every quick move and turn seem effortless.  Ms. Mueller, Mr. Tierney, and Ms. Jones certainly danced their faces off in the show, but none of them sang a note and none of them did anything resembling acting.  But man, did they dance!

Someone in the cast who tried to act was Alyssa Brizzi, who played Baby’s superficial and annoying sister Lisa.  I use the word “try” because she went too far over the top with every line she said and movement she made.  Granted, the character is supposed to be a contrasting comic relief, but there’s a difference between an actor finding the humor in a role and a caricature chewing the scenery.  While the audience certainly laughed it up during her song at the talent show (Lisa’s Hula), I was happy when it was over.  What I will say is that she was at least consistent in her performance – but the performance was just too much.

Considering how close most of the casting was to the original iconic characters, I was surprised with the casting of Baby’s parents, Dr. & Marjorie Houseman, originally played by Jerry Orbach and Kelly Bishop.  Jerry Orbach’s character was a little older, which made sense for the timeline – Lisa and Baby would have been born just after World War II, when men were coming home to start families.  Gary Lynch and Rachel Bell Carpenter, who filled these shoes, were too young, inmy opinion.  Plus, their costumes, by Jennifer Irwin, didn’t seem to fit the era of 1963 – they seemed modern and more of an afterthought compared to the mostly appropriate attire of the rest of the cast (petticoats fah dayz!).

Rounding out the performances, I wanted to acknowledge Chante Carmel for handling the task of most of the singing in the show.  I was surprised that this is NOT a musical.  It’s a dance show with music and a smattering of acting.  Ms. Carmel was one of the few cast members who sang, and she did a great job.  Her voice is more suited to rock/pop/karaoke, so it worked well with this “score”.  Also, in the famous finale, she shared the best known song, “I Had The Time Of My Life” with Jordan Edwin André, who also played Billy Kostecki, and the crowd went wild.

Production value was high and clever, as it needed to be in order to move this production from venue to venue across the country over the course of a year, or more.  Through the use of video projection, designed by Jon Driscoll, the minimalist set was transformed into a lakefront then a dining hall, then a cabin, then a campground, etc.  Most interesting were the outdoor dance lesson scenes on the log, in the field, and then the lake.  Using a proscenium scrim with the projections, a 3-D effect was created and while it wasn’t perfect, it presented something I had not seen before. 

Sound started out spotty, but once the booth found their levels, it was consistent and sonorous in this beautiful music hall.  The choreography by Michelle Lynch) was clearly based off the film (the original choreographer, Kate Champion, receives credit in the program), and it was fun to see those classic routines redone.  As for the music, there was an orchestra on stage.  They were good. They are already being paid.  I will never understand, then, why there so much pre-recorded music and/or original studio tracks used.

All in all, it was a fun night out.  The dancing was spectacular, the One question I asked myself, though, was, “WHY do we need this show?”  Even though I could tell that Ms. Bergstein was trying to force a reason onto the audience by amping up the war and equality scene, the show honestly doesn’t make any poignant points, and it won’t change the world…BUT it made a room of 2,000 people happy for 2.5 hours and allowed some of us to relive a little part of our youth.