Saturday, May 28, 2016

Theater Review: Dirty Dancing -- The Bushnell

Dirty Dancing. Photo Matthew Murray
Audience Has Time of Their Life Even if We Don’t Really Get Why
By Lauren Yarger
Let me begin by telling you that the audience at The Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts absolutely loved the stage version of the hot 1987 film “Dirty Dancing” starring Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey.

They cheered and applauded, sometimes sang along and were having such a good time, they even laughed for no apparent reason. I put this information out there to balance the rest of this review, which reflects my reaction to this musical, which pretty much matches the response I had to the film by Eleanor Bergstein, who also writes the book for this musical: “what is everyone so excited about?”

The highlight of the movie, and also of the stage musical, is the dancing (Choreography is by Michele Lynch based on the original choreography by Kate Champion.) The story, however, leaves a lot to be desired. Like a cohesive plot with more than a culminating dance, for starters.

Set at a Catskill Mountain resort (a large shutter-type backdrop designed by Stephen Brimson Lewis completed with cheesy video projections (designed by Jon Driscoll) and sound effects (designed by Bobby Aitken), the plot focuses on the Houseman family, spending the summer enjoying exciting activities like golf, swimming and dance lessons taught by sexy Johnny Castle (Christopher Tierney in the Swayze role).

All is not as wholesome and pure as it is supposed to be in 1963, however (Jennifer Irwin designs colorful period costumes that lend themselves to dancing). Tension snaps between Dr. Jake Houseman (Mark Elliot Wilson) and his wife, Marjorie (Margot White), though we are not exactly sure why. We get the impression Dr. Houseman might have cheated. Their daughters, Lisa (Alex Scolari) and Frances “Baby” Houseman (Rachel Boone, complete with a curly-Grey coif designed by Bernie Ardia), are bored and looking for love in all the wrong places, Lisa with womanizing waiter Robby Gould (Evan Alexander Smith) and Baby with wrong-side-of-the-tracks Johnny.

Johnny and the hotel workers see to the need of the wealthy resort guests by day, where Johnny gives traditional dance classes (and a bit of loving for money on the side). By night they hold their own “dirty dancing” sessions in the staff lodgings and Baby longs to join in.

When Johnny’s regular dance partner, Penny (very talented dancer Jenny Winton), find herself pregnant after succumbing to Robby’s charms, Baby borrows money from her father to finance an illegal abortion for the girl then learns her dance steps so Johnny can keep a dancing gig.
When Penny suffers complications, Baby asks her doctor father to help, but when he assumes Johnny is the culprit, he forbids his daughter to see him again. Baby also has a rift with her sister which prevents her from warning her about Robby’s darker side.

Meanwhile, Neal Kellerman (Jesse Carrey-Beaver), the nerdy grandson of the resort’s owner, Max (Gary Lynch), has his eyes on Baby and gets rid of Johnny, but not before he can dance back into the room declaring “Nobody puts baby in a corner” and wowing everyone at the vacation spot –as well as at the Bushnell --, with the sexy dance routine they have been practicing on the sly.

When Baby finally is able to make the leap that has eluded her so far, the audience burst into shouts and applause, even more enthusiastically than they did when Johnny and Baby shared their first sexual encounter (is that really something we want to be cheering?).

I couldn’t get into this story any more than I could when I watched the film (Eleanor Bergstein, who wrote the screenplay for the 1987 movie also writes the book for this stage version). This musical, in particular, seems to be all about getting to the point where the couple can dance to the hit tune “(I've Had) The Time Of My Life." Let’s just save ourselves a lot of unnecessary scenes -- there really are a few that had me scratching my head as to why they were included, and the character of Mrs. Houseman is so confusing that she could be eliminated entirely – and cut this almost two-and-a-half thing down to size.

There are a couple of other popular songs too, like "Hungry Eyes” and "Do You Love Me?" as well as a couple of tunes by the Drifters and Marvin Gaye which weren’t in the movie. An eight-person band plays on stage, directed by Alan Plado. Music Supervision and Orchestrations are by Conrad Helfrich.

Most of the vocals are adequate with Adrienne Walker standing out as a lead singer for some of the numbers. The real star here, though, is Lynch’s choreography with exciting dancing by Winton, Tierney and Boone. Herman Petras also gets a few laughs as Mr. Schumacher, a misbehaving resort guest. The set projections, particularly images of ocean waves in which Johnny and Baby splash and swim without getting wet, draw laughs as well. So did a set change, but why the audience found it funny, another critic colleague whom I consulted and I, were unable to discern.


But I digress. The opening-night audience loved it, and they aren’t alone. The show has been a hit since it began as an eight-week staged workshop in Manhattan in 2001.  A successful international tour followed and the show most recently launched new tours in the UK, Germany and Italy and in 2014 returned to Australia in honor of the stage production’s 10th anniversary. So go enjoy the time of your life like everyone else apparently has been doing. Then drop me a line and tell me what I was missing.

Dirty Dancing plays at The Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts through May 29. Performances are Wednesday and Thursday at 7:30 pm; Friday and Saturday: 8 pm; Saturday at 2 pm; Sunday 1 and 6:30 pm Tickets $36.50-$105.50: (860) 987-5900; www.bushnell.org. If you miss it in Hartford, you can catch the show this fall when it plays a limited run at the Palace in Waterbury  Oct. 7-9.

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Lauren Yarger with playwright Alfred Uhry at the Mark Twain House. Photo: Jacques Lamarre)

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