Review: The theatrical child of ‘Dirty Dancing’

 Samuel Pergande, playing the  chief dancer at a resort, and Jenny Winton as a dancer who becomes pregnant and has to drop out of a routine,   in the tour of 'Dirty Dancing' at the Academy of Music. (Photo courtesy of  Matthew Murphy)

Samuel Pergande, playing the chief dancer at a resort, and Jenny Winton as a dancer who becomes pregnant and has to drop out of a routine, in the tour of 'Dirty Dancing' at the Academy of Music. (Photo courtesy of Matthew Murphy)

“Dirty Dancing,” whose national tour unfolds at the Academy of Music for about two weeks, is like a caricature of a musical. From its opening lines, the characters speak in declamations. Like this! It’s full of songs from the early sixties, and the major players sing not one of them. For a show with plenty of dancing, Michele Lynch’s choreography relies a whole lot on slithering crotches, one generally attached to another.

The way it’s written by Eleanor Bergstein, scenes of a few short lines come and go and the people in them – usually two, sometimes three – frequently just walk off the stage when they’re done. Okay, they may as well be saying, that’s that. Given these little chunklets of dialogue and the quick scene changes, you might begin to think “Dirty Dancing” would be much better as a movie. Oh, wait – it was, both a movie and much better, and also written by Bergstein.

Is it entertaining? Yes, no doubt, because the story of a Catskills resort whose staff is supposed to mesmerize the customers but never sleep with them is such a good one. Is it saucy? For sure, because one of the customers is an ungainly young woman who falls for the resort’s swooningly pelvic lead dancer and ends up learning a thing or two about a thing or two. And then she turns into a swan.

Is it annoying? It was to me, for its stock characters who lack the nuance of those in the 1987 movie, and for its simple-minded premise that people who patronize the resort are all snooty elitists, and that the staff itself is either composed of losers or Harvard boys who’ve lost their brains for the summer but will go on, next semester, to become freedom riders and world changers.

The year is 1963, and the resort staff and guests throng to televisions to watch the Rev. Martin Luther King as he delivers the “I have a dream” speech that will become an icon of oration. Then they break into “This Land Is Your Land,” which segues, seconds before the dirty dancing starts afresh, into “We Shall Overcome.” But they cannot overcome the show’s trivialization – the scene’s as phony as a listing on a “Broadway Philadelphia” roster that has never been to Broadway, which “Dirty Dancing” is.

It was, however, a long run on London’s West End, and has been a European tour hit and also an Australian success. And even though it’s a super-light piece of theater, even for a jukebox musical, it has hands-down the sexiest Act One curtain scene you’ll find, and the ending – when the main characters victoriously make a statement in dance – is a sizzler. That’s the part everyone remembers from the film with Jennifer Grey and Patrick Swayze, dancing to the song “(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life.”

At the Academy of Music, that song is delivered with great force by Doug Carpenter and Jennlee Shallow, the show’s two major voices; he also sings a stirring “In the Still of the Night” and she, a lovely “This Magic Moment.” Gillian Abbott is “Baby,” the customer who breaks all the rules – her parents’ and the club’s – because … well, because love finds a way. She’s engaging as a kid headed for the Peace Corps, who starts off awkwardly and agrees to fill in for a dancer who becomes pregnant (nicely portrayed by Jennie Winton).

Samuel Pergande is the chief dirty dancer — an accomplished dancer in real life – and he moves fluently and makes it all look easy. He’s also expressionless because he has a thankless part; his character in the stage version is joyless. And given to mumbling. “Just hold your frame,” he directs Baby in a monotone, as he tries to get her to slink. “Lock it.” “Feel the music.”

The director, James Powell, does what he can with the jerky script to keep the plot flowing on a stage whose scenery depends largely on Jon Driscoll’s video and projection design. It’s a clever creation, that at one point has our two lovebirds trying to learn balance atop a rocky outcrop, then practicing a lift in the water. You know how: Just hold your frame. Lock it. Feel the music. Oh, come on … get sensual.

 

“Dirty Dancing,” in a national tour, runs through April 5 at the Academy of Music, on Broad Street between Locust and Spruce Streets. 215-731-3333 or www.kimmelcenter.org/broadway.

 

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