At this point, there’s no doubt that “Dirty Dancing — The Classic Story on Stage” is a big popular hit. In its North American premiere in Toronto, the musical opened to a $17.3 million advance, while still playing to sold-out houses in London and Hamburg and with debuts scheduled next year in the Netherlands and Chicago. But is it any good? Not really.
Eleanor Bergstein’s own relentlessly faithful adaptation of her screenplay sees to it that every scene from the 1987 hit film (and more) makes it onto the Royal Alexandra stage. All that’s left for director James Powell to do is play traffic cop to the clutter and crowds.
Set in a Catskills resort in summer 1963, the story tells of Frances “Baby” Houseman (Monica West), who is just about to enter college and ready to change the world. She worships her doctor father (Al Sapienza), condescends to her airhead sister (Natalie Krill) and has a frosty relationship with her mother (Victoria Adilman). But underneath, there’s a fire waiting to be lit.
The kindling arrives in the person of Johnny Castle (Jake Simons), the combination dance instructor and gigolo without portfolio at Kellerman’s Resort. His specialty is “dirty dancing,” a mambo riff that metaphorically stands for a lot of other things as well.
Thanks to a soap opera subplot involving Johnny’s red-hot partner Penny (Britta Lazenga), Johnny and Baby get closer. He teaches her how to dance — first vertically, then horizontally — and the rest of the show involves the tension between Baby and her family.
But as the iconic line goes, “Nobody puts Baby in a corner.” In the end, the good guys win and the bad guys lose, which never happens in life, only in an Eleanor Bergstein script.
The problem, however, isn’t necessarily the plot; rather, it’s the way that plot is treated.
Ostensibly, this is a musical, with a wall-to-wall soundtrack that combines actual period recordings with live recreations of songs from the era. But none of the leading characters ever actually sing. The music is audio wallpaper, performed by a series of talented vocalists treated as the onstage equivalent of backup singers. This becomes increasingly problematic as the show drags on, because the actors have only Bergstein’s dialogue with which to express themselves.
The action never stops for long, and Stephen Brimson Lewis’ set revolves, goes up and down, uses projections, film and live digital cameras to try to force a movie onto the stage. It’s a busy, bustling production, packed full of stuff, but it’s not a very attractive one.
Matters aren’t helped by two leading players who have none of the charisma of originals Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey.
Simons has nice pecs and swaggers manfully as Johnny, but his dancing never gets past good and his acting remains stuck in a single macho groove. More damaging is West as Baby, who has none of the vulnerability, quirky charm or warmth necessary to make us care about the character.
Supporting players range drastically in quality, with Sapienza’s Dr. Houseman, Lazenga’s Penny and Victor A. Young’s Kellerman coming off best. But the rest are saddled with a mixture of soapy melodramatics and bad ethnic comedy they have trouble rising above.
The audience, especially females in their 30s and 40s, react loudly to the show, cheering the trademark lines, hooting like Chippendales revelers at Johnny taking off his shirt and standing as if on cue when love triumphs at the final curtain. But it’s obvious these people entered the theater already believing in the Gospel of Dirty Dancing and needed precious little convincing to join the theatrical congregation.
It will be interesting to see how long the show can run backed by these devoted followers. On its own merits, it’s not likely to attract many converts.