Don’t Expect the Movie: “Dirty Dancing: The Classic Story On Stage”

Craven and Courts. Photo by Jeremy Daniel.

Presented by Boch Center
By Eleanor Bergstein
Music supervising and orchestrations by Conrad Helfrich
Choreography by Michele Lynch
Original choreography by Kate Champion
Directed by Sarna Lapine

June 13 – 17, 2018
Shubert Theatre
Boston, MA
Dirty Dancing tour on Facebook

Review by Kitty Drexel

(Boston, MA) Dirty Dancing: The Classic Story On Stage is a great production for professional-dance enthusiasts who enjoyed Dirty Dancing the movie but have no particular emotional connection to it. Diehard movie fans may feel put out by Eleanor Bergstein’s script upgrades. Musical aficionados may snark at the “acting” going on onstage. Anybody ready for some good time media nostalgia will enjoy themselves.

This musical is the movie with extra dance numbers, lots of ensemble dance numbers, no singing from the leads, and heaps of Dad Jokes. It tells the story of Baby (Kaleigh Courts), Johnny (Aaron Patrick Craven) and the summer of 1963 at Kellerman’s Lodge. Baby carries and watermelon with her “spaghetti arms.” Johnny gyrates until his hips charm the pants off the guests. Pennny (Anais Blake) has a botched abortion. Robbie (Ryan Cupello) is an entitled fuckboi. Mr. and Mrs. Houseman (Christopher Robert Smith and Erica Lee Cianciulli) put Baby in a corner. It’s the story we expect with some additions: guests listen to MLK’s march on Washington, Kellerman’s is integrated (to a point), and the drastic class differences between guests and employees are heightened.

The dancing is very, very good. The lifts are exceptionally executed. It’s brilliant choreography but it’s obvious that the casting staff chose dance ability over every other ability needed for a stable musical performance. The acting was… secondary to the dancing. Leads swallowed lines and spoke them upstage. The cast has lovely backs but we want to see their fronts when they speak.  

Watching the cast dance so exquisitely with such perfect form reminded me of the Tony Moss casting monologue from the 1995 cult classic Showgirls but on opposite day. The musical is called Dirty Dancing but all of the dancing, even the intentionally sexy stuff, was hyper stylized. With the exception of Craven who swizzled like a young Elvis and Hannah Straney as scorned seductress Vivian Pressman, the “dirty” dancing had all of the white hot passion of an intergenerational pole dancing class taught by minors. The guests at Kellerman’s are white but not that white.  

Vocalists Erica Philpot, Nickolaus Colon, and Torrey Linder carry the vocals of the show. They sing all of the jukebox hits with all the passion missing from the dialogue. Philpot and Colon make their character’s contrived, last minute romance work. Demitra Pace gives unexpected depth to Lisa Houseman. “Lisa’s Hula” is cringe-worthy in a good way. 

Smith and Cianciulli share a sweet duet, “If You Were the Only Girl.” From this song and Smith’s snippet of “I Am A Pirate King” from Pirates of Penzance, it’s clear that both actors were shoehorned into these roles. Their talents are bigger than their characters.  

Bergstein tries to parallel civic issues of race division with class division. She compares these similar but very different issues with moderate success. The campfire/”We Shall Overcome” scene is forced but Baby’s fervor for moral politics comes naturally to the character. Meanwhile, the illegal abortion/desperation of poverty subplot is neglected. Dirty Dancing the movie was progressive in that it showed family audiences the consequences of conservative healthcare for women. Dirty Dancing the musical misses the opportunity to remind its audience of the movie’s original messages. Whether legal or not, women will have abortions. Better to make them legal so fewer women die. The only fantasy in that situation is Robbie’s meager comeuppance.

All in all, Dirty Dancing was a fun time. Michele Lynch’s choreography is executed with precision by the cast. The vocalists make up for lost passion with their music. They sing as well as the dancers move but with more personal flare. My date and I had a good time but we are emotionally removed from the source material. We don’t particularly care that Craven isn’t Patrick Swayze, or that the musical deviates from the movie. If you do, you might want to reconsider tickets.

Lastly, sources site the running time as two hours and 15 minutes. We entered the theater at 7pm but didn’t leave until 10pm. Please plan accordingly.

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