Chicago Theatre Review
The Classic Story On Stage
Dirty Dancing – Broadway in Chicago
Back for another visit to Chicago, this time starring Hubbard Street’s own Christopher Tierney as hunky dancer Johnny Castle (the role made famous by Patrick Swayze) and, from the Joffrey Ballet, stunning Jenny Winton as his dancing partner, Penny Johnson. The production also stars a luminous young actress and dancer named Gillian Abbott as Baby, the role that elevated Jennifer Grey into a star. Set at a fictitious family-friendly summer resort in the Catskills, this production isn’t simply based on the film, it IS the film. Transferred to the stage by the movie’s screenwriter, Eleanor Bergstein, it’s almost identical, scene-for-scene and line-for-line. There are a couple of new scenes and the soundtrack boasts a few different vintage songs but, for all practical purposes, this is the exact same 1987 romantic drama that’s been thrilling audiences worldwide for almost thirty years.
In an era when both jukebox musicals and film adaptations dominate the Broadway scene, the decision to transfer this popular movie to the boards seems like a no-brainer. It’s both shows in one, a musical made in heaven. Right? And yet, for some reason, this stage version doesn’t quite work, at least not as a satisfying evening of theatre. Everything from the film—absolutely everything—is there. The performers are all attractive and charismatic. Most of them are accomplished, athletic dancers, able to execute Kate Champion and Michele Lynch’s athletic 60’s style choreography with flair and finesse. Some of the cast are even talented vocalists, although much of the singing is unfortunately prerecorded. It’s as if someone is backstage playing the film’s soundtrack over a loudspeaker. Jennifer Irwin’s costumes are carbon copies of those in the movie, and Stephen Brimson Lewis’ basic scenic design mostly provides a surface on which to project Jon Driscoll’s gorgeous video work, which also looks just like the film. One sequence, during which Baby tries to master Johnny’s difficult over-the-head lift, for example, is breathtakingly realistic, as the camera shifts from a field of waving grass to a rippling lake, complete with the appropriate sound effects, as the couple splashes around.
What’s missing, however, is a theatrical script, a real play that provides something into which this cast can really sink its teeth. Instead, the show unfolds as a collection of cinematic scenes linked together by the familiar songs and choreography. The characters, many of whom are engaging, aren’t very deep or well-written. The only people this script allows the audience to understand are Johnny and Baby, and that’s primarily due to the skill and commitment of the production’s two leading actors. It’s as if James Powell has directed his talented cast to simply study the movie and copy what they’ve seen.
The musical certainly isn’t lacking an audience. The movie has always had a huge fan base. With “the classic story told on stage,” hordes of middle-aged women flock to the theatre expecting to see their favorite film live and in the flesh. They’re ready to drool over the bad boy from the wrong side of the tracks, the stud with the sexy dance moves, and to fantasize about his romance with the naive, independent-minded Jewish princess. With such expectations, audiences won’t be disappointed. But serious theatergoers, especially those eager to experience a new musical comedy, will find this show wanting.
On this tour, the performers are all attractive and charismatic. As mentioned, Gillian Abbott is quite good as Baby. The same is true for Christopher Tierney, who’s returning to the role of Johnny. Both share a solid chemistry that sizzles over the footlights. They’re equally competent actors with excellent dancing skills. Unfortunately, neither of the characters have any songs so we never get to hear them sing. Jenny Winton’s excellent in her portrayal of the resort’s star dancer and class instructor, Penny Johnson. As Johnny’s dancing partner she’s top-notch. She also makes the most of a sketchy plot line that involves the young woman needing an abortion during an era when it was still illegal.
Most of the singing in this show falls to lovely ensemble member and dancer Jennlee Shallow, as Elizabeth. While usually belting out a storm as the show’s prima soloist, she’s sometimes paired with another fine vocalist, Doug Carpenter. He plays Billy, Johnny’s younger cousin. Together these two sing the show’s most highly awaited song, “(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life,” during which Johnny and Baby dance that scintillating finale number. Mark Elliot Wilson, whose credits are primarily from film and TV, makes a strong Dr. Jake Houseman, Baby’s liberal father. Alex Scolari is amusing as Baby’s egotistical older sister, Lisa. Ms. Scolari’s animated rendition of “Lisa’s Hula” is quite funny. And much credit goes to a talented ensemble who cha cha, samba and mambo their way through an energetic evening.
This marks the second time Chicago audiences have had the chance to enjoy the heated romance between Johnny and Baby, some sensuous, dirty dancing and its 60’s soundtrack. Songs include “Do You Love Me?,” “Hungry Eyes,” “You Don’t Own Me” and an instrumental version of “She’s Like the Wind.” Almost like a dance concert strung together by a vague storyline, this can be an enjoyable production, if audiences don’t come expecting their lives to be changed in any way except to relive the nostalgia found in this 1987 film fantasy.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented August 19-30 by Broadway in Chicago at the Cadillac Palace Theatre, 151 W. Randolph, Chicago.
Tickets are available at all Broadway in Chicago box offices, at all Ticketmaster locations, by calling the Chicago Ticket Line at 800-775-2000 or by going to www.BroadwayInChicago.com.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.