Did I have the time of my life last night at “Dirty Dancing: The Classic Story on Stage”?
Sorry, not even close. For me that train left the Catskills long before a major “Houston, we don’t quite have lift off” moment in the show’s climactic final scene marred the opening-night performance at the Saroyan Theatre. But having to watch poor Baby wobbling in the arms of Johnny as he struggled to keep her in the air – not once but twice – sealed the deal.
There are two iconic moments any adaptation or incarnation of the 1987 movie “Dirty Dancing” has to deliver to nostalgia-soaked fans, of course. Johnny, the Patrick Swayze role, a hunky bad-boy dance instructor from the wrong side of the tracks, has to storm into the big variety show and declare: “No one puts Baby in the corner.”
And Baby, the upscale mildly rebellious doctor’s daughter played by Jennifer Grey in the movie, has to soar in Johnny’s arms during “(I’ve Had) the Time of My Life” in a triumphant lift, one so important that it’s featured on the cover of the show’s program.
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The “Baby in the corner” line came as expected, to the vast delight of the rowdy, female-dominated Saroyan audience. But the lift, alas, was not one for the ages.
You could tell everyone on stage (and in the audience) was geared up for the moment. Here’s Baby, backing up a bit, ready to make the run into Johnny’s arms. The lights change dramatically as she leaps and soars, ready to hold and bask in applause for a triumphant few seconds. But like a longshoreman struggling with a bag of potatoes, all he can do is gamely try to hold her up. (At least he didn’t drop her.)
Some fumbles can be glossed over. Not this one. It’d be like someone dropping the big red flag in “Les Miz.” Or Grizabella tumbling off the tire as she ascends to the Heaviside Layer in “CATS.”
Am I being too hard on Christopher Tierney as Johnny, an accomplished dancer, and Anjelica Bette Fellini, the understudy playing Baby Tuesday night (and who up till then had been offering an appealing performance)? Maybe. If I’d liked the production more up to that point, I would have been more forgiving of the (double) flub.
Set in the giddy early 1960s at a fancy all-inclusive resort in the Catskills Mountains – think a cruise ship except on land – the narrative delights in its forbidden romance between Frances “Baby” Houseman, a guest at the resort, and Johnny Castle, the dance instructor.
In a low-budget, cheesy-romance sort of way, the movie explored such issues as racism, abortion and class. Eleanor Bergstein, who wrote the movie script and adapted it for stage, wanted to beef up the show’s narrative to add a stronger sense of social issues in the early 1960s. She added references to Freedom Riders and Martin Luther King, Jr. And she rounds out some of the secondary characters, such as Baby’s mom (Hannah Jane McMurray), who get expanded storylines.
Instead of using traditional musical-theater conventions with characters singing songs that advance the plot, Bergstein opted for the jukebox approach, throwing in a long list of musical numbers along with a few powerhouse cast vocals (especially Chante Carmel, who soars on the number “This Magic Moment” and others.) But unlike other jukebox musicals, “Dirty Dancing” uses the musical numbers more like a movie soundtrack – a device that never quite clicks.
The biggest problem is that the show wants to be serious and dramatic with a capital D while at the same time offering campy fun to the cult-classic fans of the movie. At times overly earnest and others eye-rollingly ribald, it never finds a consistent tone. Instead of the nudge-and-wink self-awareness of, say, “Rock of Ages,” another period piece built around music, we get a show that doesn’t feel comfortable in its own skin.
At the same time, James Powell’s clunky direction lacks nuance, pounding out plot points from the movie almost as if he’s checking them off a list. Any sense of an emotional narrative arc is pretty much quashed by the steamroller approach.
On the strong side: The show has some great dancing, with impressive performances by Tierney and Jennifer Mealani Jones as Penny, the resort employee whose pregnancy becomes a major plot point. And the show’s technical and scenic accomplishments, which are heavy on projections, are often impressive, including an amazing moment in the first act that puts Baby and Johnny in the “middle” of a lake as he tries to teach her how to do a lift. (Too bad, ahem, it didn’t take.) Fresno doesn’t often get productions featuring Actors Equity cast members, such as this one, and production values are quite high.
Overall, this oddly conceived “musical,” which one critic described as more like a “karaoke dance night,” eventually outwore its welcome with me. There were times I nearly got hooked by the show’s campy charm, but there was always something to keep me more as plodding observer than happy participant.
By the way, my sentiments did not seem to correspond with many in the audience. I’m guessing that many of them had the movie so memorized that they didn’t need any semblance of an unfolding narrative. And who cares about tone or continuity when tight pants and suggestive dance moves are in abundance? This is a show with “Dirty” in the title, after all.
In the final scene of the first act, the solidly built Johnny loses his shirt for in preparation for an intimate moment with Baby. For the first time, we see him bare-chested.
The woman sitting next to me in the Saroyan blurted out: “It’s about time!”
It might not have been the time of her life, but it was still a pretty good Tuesday evening for her, I’d say.
- 7:30 p.m. Wednesday
- Saroyan Theatre, 730 M St.
- 800-7450-3000, www.ticketmaster.com