Dirty Dancing Returns… Again?
By: Angelina Kemmett, ’18
If critics crushed the 1987 movie Dirty Dancing, why would it be revived on stage? The answer is simple: decades-long audience adoration that shows no signs of slowing. In reality, it is not a review from a professional that makes a performance sink or swim, but fan response. Case in point: the recent ABC network reboot of the movie was universally panned by reviewers and casual watchers alike, who were skeptical even before its airing. Enthusiasts of the original movie just could not find it in them to enjoy this rendition. Though Dirty Dancing: The Classic Story Live on Stage does not pose all the same problems as the ABC live version, it is not free of missteps.
Dirty Dancing starts off almost right away with a scene transition and does not take a break the rest of the show. These shifts are frequent and jarring, often making for a narrative pace nearly as offbeat as Baby Houseman before her dance lessons. Erica Philpot provides dazzling vocals as Elizabeth (especially in her rendition of “We Shall Overcome”), but her songs often seem out of place, merely used to cover up the moving of various set pieces. The dancing that accompanies other set changes makes much more sense, given that Dirty Dancing should be, like its source material, a play about dance, not a musical–a distinction some cannot seem to grasp.
Not all acting is created equal, as one finds in the audience of Dancing. The leads overact the show’s drama, replacing emotion with monotonous yelling. A handful of lines are briefly started incorrectly, then fixed on a second try. This is strange to see in a play where many of the lines are taken directly from the movie it is based on–a play I could lip sync at parts just from having seen its preceding film. In addition, Kaleigh Courts (Frances “Baby” Houseman) struggles to open a door and seems to be cursed with a broken dress. She handles her wardrobe malfunction like the professional she is, keeping her cool and coming on for the performance at the Sheldrake Hotel with the frock looking to be pinned together in the back. Another character quickly steps on stage and back off again, appearing to have mixed up his cues.
What does everyone presumably go to see a play called Dirty Dancing for? The dancing! In that area, there is no disappointment. Every dancer, from principal character to ensemble, is tremendously skilled. Their training shows in each effortless step. Anaïs Blake shines as Penny, stealing the show with her incomparable stage presence and dance prowess.
What Courts and Aaron Patrick Craven (Johnny Castle) lack in dramatic performance, they make up for in comedy, striking its timing like that of their dancing. Courts’s physical comedy is especially hilarious, as she shakes her hips without rhythm and Craven’s character eventually joins in on her goofy hand motions. Other notable comedians are Rick Grossman (Max Kellerman), Owen Russell (Neil Kellerman), and Demitra Pace (Lisa Houseman). Nickolaus Colõn’s (Billy Kosteki) voice, not showcased until almost the end, is unexpected and worth the wait. He hits every note beautifully, causing a rush of applause.
The finale nearly erases every one of my issues with the play. “(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life” is infectious. Everyone in the audience claps along. There are audible cheers as not one, but two love stories culminate in possibly the most famous dance sequence of all time–the second being the secondary storyline of Billy and Elizabeth, the two principle singers of the show, whose pining for each other during set changes leads to their eventual union, the best thing to come out of the play’s numerous transitions. Neil Kellerman is given more dimension, leaving Kellerman’s to be a Freedom Rider. Most importantly, the “Dirty Dancing lift” is completely flawless. Seeing that happen in real life is one of the best theatre experiences I have ever had. If you do not believe me, go see the show for yourself and let the thunderous cheers of the audience tell you. Dirty Dancing is worth it if even solely for that one scene.
Despite my gripes, I enjoyed Dirty Dancing. It was mostly faithful to the movie, and I found myself invested in aspects of the story while watching that I had not been before. It was a great deal of fun, if not the best play I have ever seen. As Hugh Jackman says in The Greatest Showman: “A theatre critic who can’t find the joy in theatre–now who’s the fraud?” This critic will always have a great time at the theatre; if I could not, why would I keep going? If you give this Dirty Dancing a chance, I assure you that you will find joy, too.
Dirty Dancing is playing at Boston’s Boch Center Shubert Theatre through June 17.