Dirty Dancing: The Classic Story On Stage isn’t particularly dirty. There is a lot of dancing, but really, it’s nothing to write home from the Catskills about. So what are we left with? Some Classic Movie Lines: On Stage! The show works, though, because it takes that limited ambition and sweetly sashays with it.
The 1987 movie came out the week I turned 12, so I was part of the generation of kids who were too young to see it in the theater (maybe those with more liberal parents got to go) but bought the soundtrack in droves (or, in my family’s case, dubbed it on cassette) and made it the first movie to sell over a million copies on home video (actually, we taped it off cable). It’s been a long time since I’ve seen it, but it all came back to me as the spunky musical went through its paces: Baby’s jean shorts. The forbidden staff party. The lifts in the water. The botched surgery. The blouse whip-off. The class tensions. “Nobody puts Baby in a corner!”
Actually, I didn’t forget that last line—it’s the one line you remember if you remember any line from Dirty Dancing. It’s become so iconic that I was impressed with how simply it was delivered in the stage production: Johnny Castle just walks onstage and says it, and it works, and the music begins. If that doesn’t sound particularly like a compliment, think about what the producers of stage shows like this are tempted to do with lines like that: “I’m not dead yet” was a funny line in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, but Spamalot drives it into the ground (so to speak) with an entire song and production number written around it. Dirty Dancing knows: all you need to do is get Baby out of that damn corner.
The Classic Story On Stage I saw last night was a touring version of the musical that premiered ten years ago in—aptly—Australia, the nation that brought us Strictly Ballroom. It’s adapted by the film’s screenwriter Eleanor Bergstein, who was inspired by her own experiences dancing (sometimes dirtily) as a girl at summer resorts in the Catskills. The story’s heartfelt sincerity—the quality that’s key to the effectiveness of the movie—still shines through, meaning this Dirty Dancing remains a guilty pleasure that doesn’t think you have anything to feel guilty about. (The stage show presses its luck in this department with an awkward and heavy-handed detour into the Civil Rights Movement.)
Another smart choice was not to write any new songs for the stage adaptation (I’m looking at you, Flashdance: The Musical), instead relying on the jam-packed film soundtrack to provide a parade of hits (not omitting the 80s chestnuts—anyone remember Zappacosta?) for the characters to grind (and grind, and grind) to. Bergstein also doesn’t have her actors sing, handing the vocal responsibilities to a couple of dedicated supporting cast members. That allows director James Powell to cast his leads for acting and dancing—and looks. My mom was left fanning herself with her program over chiseled male lead Samuel Pergande, and Jillian Mueller—the show’s Baby—pulls off the difficult trick of holding our attention while acting like a wallflower.
Pergande and Mueller are both cleaner-cut than their film counterparts—the roguish Patrick Swayze and the bratty Jennifer Grey, both of whom were about ten years older than their characters—and certainly don’t have their chemistry, but that’s fine. A glimpse of what might have been comes at the end of the first act, when the two consummate their flirtation. The show slows down and lets the two just stand there, shirtless, while “Cry to Me” plays in its original recording by Solomon Burke, dripping with such pure sex that you can almost imagine something is going to happen up there on Johnny’s bed as it slides backwards through the scrim. Sometimes it’s best to just hand things over to a pro.
Dirty Dancing: The Classic Story On Stage is at the Orpheum Theatre in Minneapolis through Oct. 19 and has American tour dates scheduled through July 2015.