REVIEW: Dirty Dancing: The Classic Story on Stage

Posted: March 10, 2017 at 5:15 p.m.

“Dirty Dancing: The Classic Story on Stage” is showing at the Walton Arts Center through Sunday.

From the very first moment of the show -- which opens with the same syncopated beats you expect from the movie -- the full house at Wednesday night's opening performance of "Dirty Dancing" at the Walton Arts Center was ready. The air was thick with anticipation. Really.

As the slowly and scandalously grinding couples drift off stage after the opening number, our heroine Frances "Baby" Houseman (Jillian Mueller) greets the audience with her famous introductory line, "That was the summer of 1963: When everybody called me 'Baby' and it didn't occur to me to mind." And from this moment, I could tell that with each breath before an iconic line and each downbeat of a beloved song, there would be a ripple of excitement through the audience for the rest of the evening. They weren't there for a life-changing piece of theater. They were there to experience the nostalgia of one of their favorite love stories, and the excitement of seeing it in real time before them.

FAQ

‘Dirty Dancing:

The Classic Story on Stage’

WHEN — 8 p.m. today; 2 & 8 p.m. Saturday; 2 p.m. Sunday

WHERE — Walton Arts Center in Fayetteville

COST — Sold out. Contact box office for waiting list info,

INFO — 443-5600 or waltonartscenter.org

BONUS — Read the preview story here or extra content from my interview with Eleanor Bergstein here.

A moment for full disclosure: I'm a big fan of the film. I've seen it over and over and still laugh, and hold my breath, at the same parts. I would think approaching the show from this perspective has the potential for bias in one of two ways: You either go in expecting to love it regardless, or you're expecting there's no way for it to live up to what you already love in the film. I tried my best to set any bias aside and view the show as a fresh story, but with its faithfulness to the source material, that was nearly impossible.

The first act moves quickly -- scene-for-scene, word-for-word with the film -- drifting from the lawn of Kellerman's Resort to dance classes to cottages via the colorful animations on a projection screen at the center of the stage, which aids in establishing place, or disappears completely to offer more room for the dances. Most of the music performed live by a band -- often visible at their setup above the stage -- renders a feeling of immediacy, and somehow even more energy, to the numbers. The absence of a screen between viewer and actors makes Baby feel even more awkward, Johnny (Christopher Tierney) and Penny (Jennifer Mealani Jones) even sexier, and the flurry of legs and whips of long hair feel all the more titillating.

While the show is of course full of music, it isn't a traditional musical. The main characters are not the ones singing, and the songs do not serve to move the story forward. Instead, they exist mostly the same way they do in the film -- for dancing, and as a background for the action. At nearly an hour longer than the movie, the run time allows for deeper development -- both in character and setting -- as well as extra numbers not in the original. A note in the program reveals these moments are placed where they were originally intended for the film. And thank goodness they made the cut for the stage because soloists Jordan Edwin André (playing Johnny's cousin Billy) and ensemble member Chante Carmel deliver breathtaking performances.

A few staging choices during the lift-practicing sequence earned some giggles from the audience, but I suspect the production team was leaning in to the joke. On the whole, though, I enjoyed seeing the choreography and pacing transferred from the screen to the stage in interesting and lively ways.

As much as I tried my best not to compare Mueller and Tierney to Jennifer Grey and the inimitable Patrick Swayze, it couldn't be helped. But I don't mind saying I doubt I could think of a better pair to play runners-up. Mueller brings the right amount of awkward and innocence opposite Tierney's annoyance, depth and, ultimately, affection in spite of himself. And the first line we hear of his smoldering rumble of a voice? Well, there was a stir through the audience, for a whole different reason than nostalgia...

In speaking with Eleanor Bergstein, writer/creator of both the film and the stage production, for an interview with What's Up!, Bergstein told me she feels the stage show is everything "the audience had been wanting all along without knowing they'd been wanting it." I remember at intermission thinking the story wasn't so different to the point of feeling like I was getting anything I didn't get from the movie. Don't misunderstand: I was still loving it and only too happy to be watching. But I didn't feel it was all that much more.

By the finale, though, I felt it wash over me like a wave. As the bright saxophone in "(I've Had) The Time of My Life" played over the dancing of the final number, it came over me unexpectedly as Bergstein's words echoed in my head and I thought, "Yes, that is exactly what it's like." The characters are more fully realized; even weaselly Neil (Matt Surges) endears himself slightly by the end. And, to be corny about it, I felt a sense of completeness I didn't realize was lacking (for me) from the movie. Unfortunately, the four performances left at the WAC are all sold out. But if you managed to grab a ticket, well, (insert cliché line here about having the time of your life)!

NAN What's Up on 03/10/2017