By Gary Murray
Starring Samuel Pergande and Gillian Abbott
Choreography by Michele Lynch
Directed by James Powell
Dirty Dancing was a hit movie way back in the 1980s. Set in the early 1960s, it told the story of a young Jewish girl Baby on vacation at a holiday camp in upstate New York. There she meets a dance instructor who shows her that there is more to her privileged upbringing than she has experienced. She falls in love with dance as she falls in love with the young man. The film made huge stars of both Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey. It also brought back some great 1960s songs and created some new ones. There were almost half a dozen hits on the two soundtrack LP’s.
Since nothing is more successful than success. The musical version of Dirty Dancing took Australia by storm and that production is finally making its way state-side. It will be a part of the Dallas Summer Musicals June 23 – July 5 and a part of Fort Worth’s Bass Hall July 7 – 12. Tickets are available at Ticketmaster.
The story is told in two fast moving Acts but it follows the basic formula of the movie. Baby (Gillian Abbott) is our 17 year-old girl ready to take on the world. Her family is taking a much needed vacation in up-state New York where days are filled with golf, swimming and mamba lessons. It is a world that is changing.
Almost instantly, Baby befriends Billy (Doug Carpenter) who introduces her to both Johnny (Samuel Pergande) and a type of close ‘dirty’ dancing that the staff and entertainment kids perform. Baby is fascinated by the gyrations and wants to learn that style of dancing. There is also the subplot of an abortion with Johnny’s dancing partner Penny (Jenny Winton).
In both acts, Jenny Winton gets moments to dance but they are too few and too far between. This young woman wants to break out and just dance but is held back by the constraints of the work. One yearns for her to take control and move to her hearts content. It is frustrating to see such a talented woman put to her paces
Time and time again, there are moments that just fall into the front row. Jokes drop flat and dialogue is almost mumbled. There is a mixing of live music and recorded songs from the soundtrack. One feels as if it should be either one or the other, all live music or all recorded. Either way, the mixture just feels as if the audience is being denied.
Toward the end of the first act, there are some scenes where Baby and Johnny go out in the woods and eventually into the water. Intended or not, there were some big laughs from the audience where Baby tries to learn the big catch that ends the film. Then, we get the bedroom mambo. It felt as if the film were going to plow to the ending but then came the intermission.
It is in the Second Act where things slow down and the work is almost saved. It is the last fifteen minutes of the movie stretched out to a second hour on stage.
There is the prep for the last night talent show. Wisely, there are some actual musical numbers in the Second Act. This young man Doug Carpenter comes out and belts a song so loud and so pure that it shook loose every bolt in the building. He has a magnificent vocal instrument, full and throaty but with a touch of smoky warmth. It is the kind of voice one would hear on the radio, traveling down a dusty road with the crackle of the AM banner catching notes. His duet with Jennlee Shallow is another must not miss moment.
But, that’s the problem with this entire work. I don’t want to call it a musical because most of the music is pre-recorded. It is not a dance extravaganza because there is not that much dancing. I’m at a loss at what to call it. Maybe it’s a theater experience?
There are few moments in Dirty Dancing that stand-out. It is like watching a bad version of the film. At times, it felt as if the work were going into a parody of the film then it jumped back as if the water were too tepid. Both the lead actors looked and acted like their cinematic counterparts but didn’t bring much of themselves to the roles.
Example of what is wrong with this Dirty Dancing. In the Second Act, there is this slight moment between the mom and dad where a musical number would have been perfect but they bailed out. One thinks, “Here comes the sweet moment where the parents sing a lamenting ballad of losing their daughters” but to no avail.
Final thought, if something is exactly like the movie you love; why not just watch the movie? Dirty Dancing is exactly like the move which is why it is such a crowd pleaser. Some of us wanted a more expansive Broadway experience.