All Things Entertaining and Cultural
“Dirty Dancing,” as a movie, seems to be immune to the situation suffered by many works of its time. As opposed to being forgotten or ignored, it is embraced by the young. Even people who were infants when “Dirty Dancing” was released tend of think of it fondly. People who were born after its heyday also know it. Considering that Generation Next and the millennials are the high priests of the disposable and “now,” and take almost no interest in history, let alone cultural history, that’s an incredible achievement. Ingrid Bergman and Humphrey Bogart should be so lucky with this group.
The cultlike admiration for “Dirty Dancing” makes it a natural for stage adaptation. Producers don’t even have to be ambitious enough to commission an original score. “I’ve Had the Time of My Li-i-ife” and other pop tunes from the ’80s and earlier — “Dirty Dancing is set in 1963, pre-assassination and pre-Vietnam — more than suffice. They have a pre-constructed favorite, and they know it.
To the lasting shame of Amber Jacobsen and her corporate partners, they act too lazily, too uncreatively, and too smarmily on their knowledge. They take “Dirty Dancing’s” appeal so much for granted, they fail to even try to mount a quality production that tells Johnny and Baby’s romantic tale with any texture or theatrical sharpness.
Everything about this touring production — EVERYTHING!!! — is cookie-cutter and comme il faut. The best performance is facile. The direction is perfunctory. Michele Lynch’s choreography has merit, but sloppy, uncaring director James Powell — remember his name as a villain — has no standards. The dances, good though they may be, are like everything else, literally thrown on stage for your delectation.
Powell deserves to be buried to his neck in mud for the way he ruins anything “Dirty Dancing” might accomplish. His lack of detail, his acceptance of the third-rate, and his dismissal of anything remotely artistic or dramatic, passes the border and lands in the realm of the incompetent.
The real disgrace is this doesn’t have to so. Jacobsen and company give Powell all the ingredients he needs to whip up a decent and tasty soufflé. Eleanor Bergstein’s book is identical to the screenplay she wrote for the movie. It might be cinematic in nature, but when you hear its dialogue through the wretched line readings of the tour’s cast, you can tell it is literate, playable, and feasible for the stage. Songs may be borrowed, but they’re songs the audience recognizes as fitting the time, songs we like. They are not sung by the principal performers, but so what? That tends to be a trait of Australian musicals — This “Dirty Dancing” was originally produced in Australia and travelled to London before hitting the U.S. — and if any two performers escape whipping, they are the magnificent Jennlee Shallow, whose voice soars above the scattershot fray and gives genuine, laudable style and weight to her numbers, and Doug Carpenter, who croons his solos sweetly and with some will to entertain.
Random actors — Jenny Winton, Ryan Jesse, Scott McCreary, and Gary Lynch — acquit themselves well and rise above the general level of scorn this production engenders. Emily Rice is actually witty and touching during a number in which Baby’s sister, Lisa, founders during a talent show, but for the most part, the actors bark their lines. There’s no semblance at human conversation, no thought about what line might mean and how to deliver it in earnest, no sincerity in anyone’s approach to the dialogue, and no sense of anything but getting past the words as quickly and tonelessly as one can to get to the choreography, which is also done without distinction. Powell is obviously a lenient taskmaster. As long as his performers do what it says to do next in Bergstein’s script, it doesn’t matter to him whether they do it with any honesty, integrity, or desire to communicate.
There are exceptions. The last 10 minutes of “Dirty Dancing” show all that has been missing for the first 100 minutes of the production. Dancing with spirit to “I’ve Had the Time of My Life,” Samuel Pergande as Johnny and Gillian Abbott as Baby exude true romance and show their mettle as dancers.
I congratulate Pergrande for that sequence. The lingering trouble is today’s theater brims with triple threats, The dancers now acting in Broadway’s “An American in Paris” muster acting and singing chops enough to make their portrayals work (although “An American in Paris,” in previews, is also problematic and not ready for opening). The people in “On the Town” and “On the Twentieth Century” or even Bristol’s “Ragtime,” 11th Hour’s Field Hockey Hot,” and Horizon’s “Into the Woods” can sing, dance, and act with aplomb. Why did Jacobsen and Powell settle for leads that could barely accomplish their specialty when so many people are available who can make Pergande and Abbott look what they should be, waiters?
The answer is because they’re schlockmeisters. If one element of “Dirty Dancing” went awry, if a little glitch or lapse in direction showed up once or twice, if all held together except for one performance, you can say Powell needs to fine tune or replace. When everything is claptrap, when all is perfunctory, when no evidence of class or dramatic tension appears anywhere on stage, except when Shallow sings or Jesse holds focus, then the director is to blame. To my mind, Powell is no director. He’s barely a traffic manager. He put no effort into making “Dirty Dancing” good, let alone as good as it could be, and that is unconscionable.
Let’s look at the shame and disgrace more closely because “Dirty Dancing” could be salvaged with a modicum of care.
Eleanor Bergstein provides a durable story. It is set in a place that is familiar to many and interesting to more, the once-upon-a-time thriving Catskills resorts that offered all kinds of recreation and catered to urban dwellers who wanted to spend a couple of weeks in the mountains and get some fresh air.
Although Powell wastes Bergstein’s effort, “Dirty Dancing” knows its milieu. I was a waiter in the Poconos, and I can tell you that when Robbie, Bergstein’s waiter, comes to a table and says, “I bring the fish first, then the chicken, then the brisket,” he is accurate because guests were entitled to as much as anything they wanted on the menu, and they invariably wanted it all. My spiel was, “I know you’ll want each, so where do you want me to start?” The brisket, or beef, always won.
Bergstein also has some tried and true literary devices in her arsenal. Johnny and Baby are from different religions, different educational backgrounds and different classes. Their love, in 1963, is forbidden. Bergstein adds to the tension by having two of the grandchildren of the resort owner, Max Kellerman, learn their trade among the kids who have to work to makes their tuition. This, in more skilled hands, would set up an honest tension.
Much of what Bergstein employs is a cliché, but it’s a popular, romantic cliché, the formula for which is often surefire. The sincere affection so many have for the movie, “Dirty Dancing” testifies to this.
Most potent of all, Bergstein has added dance to the mix. Johnny is a competitive ballroom dancer, and Baby is talent waiting to be revealed. Almost any choreography wows a theater audience. A production does not need the creativity and wit of Susan Stroman, the dash of Joshua Bergasse, the fun of Warren Carlyle, or the panache of Christopher Wheeldon to be captivated. Often, a lively variation of calisthenics will do.
“Dirty Dancing” is a romance, and Powell has cast dancers in several major parts — dancers as opposed to triple threats. That gives Michele Lynch great liberty to excite, and more often than not, her choreography is vibrant and exciting.
And sexy. The lasting power of “Dirty Dancing” goes back to its title. The dances are sensuous, and raw. It’s not polite or dainty. Groins touch. Fingertips outline muscles and more, more being body parts that swell and dangle.
“Dirty Dancing,” at its best, should make people swoon. Powell believes in shorthand and stopping at the minimum, but in a more robust, conscientious production, Lynch’s dances could ignite some fire.
My point is “Dirty Dancing” has what is needs to succeed. All that stops it is careless and inattention to detail. The touring production always offers only enough to get by, and the sad fact it doesn’t get by. Its sloppiness and lack of professional quality take away from the enjoyment Bergstein engineered. “Dirty Dancing” doesn’t live up to expectations, and you feel cheated.
It isn’t that the production is boring. You like the familiar story enough to want to see how it unfolds, no matter wooden and inexpressive most of the cast is.
The pity is the production borders on boring and gives you nothing you can savor or admire. Except for Emily Rice’s affecting attempt to be a singer, other bits that should work bomb from lack of energy or overuse.
One case in point is Baby training to develop the stamina and limberness she will need to be Johnny’s partner in a major Catskills dance competition.
Powell has Gillian Abbott go through the motions. You see a Rocky-like routine of Baby running and leaping and building her endurance. But it’s all stock footage. Abbott gives the sequence no commitment. She’s someone obviously playing at getting into shape and not a woman determined to succeed and show the world her skill and ferocity.
What Abbott does is a limp, lame parody of someone getting ready for a big event. She’s more like Danny Zuko smoking while training with the track team to impress Sandy than Peggy Sawyer driving herself to near exhaustion to be ready to take the lead role and save her “42nd Street” castmates their jobs.
It should be the other way around, but Abbott’s idea of training is more laughable, in a contemptuous way than it is convincing or entertaining.
Another example is the dance Ryan Jesse does as Neil Kellerman, grandson in training to take over Kellerman’s some day and a young lad who is enamored of Baby and thinks his wealth and position will earn mutual regard.
Jesse is one of the bright lights of “Dirty Dancing.” His acting is sharp, on the mark, and realistic. He plays Neil like a human going after what he wants rather than as the cliché Neil’s character is. He even does this dance sequence well and with comic skill.
What a pity he is undermined by the feckless Mr. Powell. Neil is a dreadful dancer. He does what a friend calls the Northeast boy step, sort of clomping heavily on each foot in sequence while counting out the beat and flailing arms in ways that are not rhythmic, attractive, or sexy.
Neil dances as he does everything else, by the book. He stands in contrast to the elegant Johnny or even the general chorus of dancers who do 60s steps with style. Jesse nails the bit Lynch gives him, but Powell fails to understand just a gimmick can only last seconds, 15 at most, before it become stale and stagy. He sabotages his show and Jesse by not having the savvy to know when a bit stops being comic and starts being irritating.
Almost every book scene is a fiasco. Acting in general is non-existent. Even seasoned pros succumb to the laziness and lack of tone or sincerity Powell allows. Jenny Winton helps bring some reality to the stage when she appears as Penny, a dance instructor and hostess who becomes pregnant and needs an abortion, but she and Jesse are two bright lights among a dozen who are not thinking about what they are saying, do not make their lines conversational or remote realistic, and do not create characters as much as they bark what they’ve memorized from Bergstein’s script.
I’d say it was amateur night in Dixie, but I like the South too much to insult it that way.
With a few day’s work and some diligence, “Dirty Dancing” can be whipped into shape. It’s not unwatchable or unbearable, just embarrassing when you consider it’s potential. Remember that romance is intact, and all it would take is some chemistry and some attention to seeing that romance develop for “Dirty Dancing” to turn a corner.
Samuel Pergande certainly has the body and dance ability to play Johnny Castle. He can even muster some come-hither eyes. Acting is Pergande’s downfall, and I believe that with careful coaching, he could overcome it.
Dancers work according to a count. Perhaps Powell could teach Pergande to speak to a count. He tries to add feeling to what Johnny says, but his voice doesn’t have the timbre or vocal flexibility for Pergande to give his lines sincerity. He always sound as if he’s reciting the memorized.
Even at that, he is better at line delivery and context than Gillian Abbott.
Physically, Abbott is a likeable Baby. She is pretty and she moves well. She can also show some of the passion Baby has for helping Winton’s Penny and for social causes, such as civil rights and women’s issues. Baby’s commitment to others is in Abbott’s posture and facial expression.
The problem, as with Pergande, is line delivery. Abbott speaks in fast monotone that rushes Baby’s dialogue and robs it of any emotion or intention. You hear clearly what Abbott is saying, but her words fall flat because there is not purpose or intonation behind them. Baby becomes inert.
Also, Abbott does not know how to act the physical ordeals Baby goes through as she trains or practices the leap that will make Johnny’s choreography irresistible to the dance contest judges.
You root for Abbott. You want her to do better. You want to take her under wing and work on her lines with her, to show her how to slow them down and deliver them with meaning.
As a dancer, Abbott is tops. She can even convincingly fake the failure to get a step right. Acting is a different matter. Abbott loses all stage presence when Baby has to speak. “Dirty Dancing” is primarily Baby’s play. It loses a lot when Baby cannot convey all that is in her.
Ryan Jesse is natural and communicative as Neil. He may be playing a fatuous, spoiled, rhythmically challenged bore, but Jesse lets you see Neil as more than a foil or contrast to Johnny. He shows him as a person. To Jesse’s credit, he can be quite comic even though Neil is usually dead serious.
Scott McCreary deals out the right amount of charm as Robbie, the Harvard student who works summers at Kellerman’s and woos all the rich, eligible young daughters of the guests.
McCreary shows Robbie’s superficiality, as well as his indifference to most any situation beyond wooing his prey of the moment. It makes matters more realistic when we learn what a worm Robbie is.
Jenny Winton is the cast member who blends excellent dancing with strong acting. She is touching as Penny, the dance instructor who’s been around but can still have her heart broken and find herself in a tough predicament.
Winton is deft at finding a style that shows off Penny’s glamor and experience while keeping her character earnest and down-to-Earth.
Gary Lynch is correctly cordial and sarcastic as the resort owner, Max Kellerman. Mark Elliot Wilson is handsome as Baby’s father, a doctor who helps out in a pinch, but falls into Powell’s trap of barking his lines. Caralyn Kozlowski is perfunctory at best as Baby’s mother.
Emily Rice gives a mixed performance as Baby’s older sister, Lisa. She, like the others, is not crisp or precise in line delivery, but she provides one of the best moments of the production when Lisa sings off-key and moves awkwardly while thinking she is doing a star turn in a Kellerman’s talent contest.
Jennlee Shallow is the outstanding member of this touring cast. In Australian musicals, the characters don’t sing, although Pergande and Abbott warble passably on occasion From various parts of the “Dirty Dancing” stage, you hear Shallow’s strong, clarion voice delivering songs with style and with attention to a lyric’s sensibility even when the lyric is trite.
In Shallow, you see true show business professionalism., She’s a singer who makes you pay attention and want to hear more.
Shallow’s male counterpart, Doug Carpenter, also brings some lightness or emotion to the Academy of Music when he sings.
Jennifer Irwin’s costumes may be the most consistently successful element in this production. They are always appropriate and often nostalgic. Stephen Brimson Lewis’s set captures the feel of a resort, especially when you the well-worn screen doors of the Kellerman cabins. Tim Mitchell’s lighting enhances the set and something provides the mood and flash the actors cannot.
“Dirty Dancing” runs through Sunday, April 5, at the Academy of Music, Broad and Locust Streets, in Philadelphia. Showtimes are 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 2 p.m. Saturday, and 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sunday. Tickets range from $120.50 to $20 and can be obtained by calling 215-893-1999 or by visiting www.kimmelcenter.org.