Christopher Tierney in Dirty Dancing. Photo by Matthew Murphy.
Written by Eleanor Bergstein
Directed by James Powell
Original Choreography by Kate Champion
Choreographed by Michele Lynch
Review by Kathi E. B. Ellis
Entire contents copyright © 2015 Kathi E. B. Ellis. All rights reserved
To begin at the end: the stage production of Dirty Dancing brought cheers and screams from the opening night audience of the Broadway in Louisville at Johnny’s iconic line about Baby and at the even more iconic dance number following that flooded the stage. Gillian Abbott and Christopher Tierney, respectively, inhabit these roles with enough of a nod to the originals (Jennifer Grey and the late Patrick Swayze) that audiences are swept back to the 1987 movie.
The production is technically not a Broadway show, as it has yet to appear on Broadway; the Louisville stop is part of the first American tour that began last year. The production, penned by the writer of the movie, Eleanor Bergstein, premiered in Australia eleven years ago and has since toured successfully there, in Europe, and in Canada. As such, stage version and movie follow almost identical story paths.
This fidelity to the movie presents a huge challenge for setting – the action takes place at the (fictional) Kellerman’s resort in the Catskills in the summer of 1963. Set designer Stephen Brimson Lewis and Video/Projections Designer Jon Driscoll together create a charming recreation of this lost-to-time resort. A series of screens which resemble window shutters slide smoothly up and down to suggest the various locations of the resort, while a canny mix of still projections and moving images conjure up the environs of the summer resort and glorious scenery of that area. The band is placed on an upper platform, sometimes seen, as if the resident resort band, sometimes hidden when the action moves to other locations.
For performers the faithfulness to the movie script means that ‘book’ scenes are frequently very short, with an exchange of only three to four brief lines, giving them little from which to build full characterizations. This is particularly true for supporting characters – the young man who’s thinking of joining the Freedom Riders, resort dancer Penny and her pregnancy, even Baby’s father – whose stories provide the context for Baby’s summer coming-of-age journey. Nonetheless the choreography (original by Australian Kate Champion, revisioned by Michele Lynch) is also a key component to the central storyline and additionally grounds the audience in time and place through the dance lessons supplied at the resort.
Jenny Winton’s Penny is a fabulous dancer; with hers and Tierney’s numbers one can sense just how dynamic these professional performers would have been for the vacationing families. The choreography neatly distinguishes between the excellence of the professionals and the clumpy awkwardness of the amateurs. The sequence in which Johnny teaches Baby, together with their competition mambo calibrates Baby’s learning curve precisely, and Abbott and Tierney have fun with the moments that don’t click. Baby’s younger sister Lisa (Alex Scolari) has an atrociously hilarious ‘Hula’, demonstrating just what the resort staff had to handle when their guests wanted to perform.
For the few numbers that are vocalized by the acting company, Jennlee Shallow stands out and, despite the unsatisfactory balance of instrumentals and vocalists in the early numbers on opening night, her voice effortlessly filled the Whitney Hall later in the show. But this is a dance production, and the ensemble switches back and forth between the ‘dirty’ dancing and more traditional ballroom dancing with aplomb.
And to end at the beginning: the first image of the production is one of the iconic dance sequences, lit larger than life behind a scrim. Audience whoops in this first moment (and also at Johnny’s first entrance and some other key moments) demonstrated that Dirty Dancing still remains the phenomenon that drove the movie to become the first home video to sell a million copies.
October 13 – 18, 2015
PNC Broadway in Louisville
501 West Main Street
Louisville, KY, 40202
Kathi E.B. Ellis is a member of the Lincoln Center and Chicago Directors’ Labs and an associate member of the Stage Directors & Choreographers Society. She has attended the LaMama Directing Symposium in Umbria, Italy, and is featured in Southern Artisty, an online registry of outstanding Southern Artists. Her directing work has been recognized with nominations for the South Florida Theatre Carbonell Award. Locally, Kathi is a member of Looking for Lilith Theatre Company, a founding principal of StageLab theatre training studio, and is part of ShoeString Productions an informal producing collective. She has written book reviews and articles for Southern Theatre, the quarterly publication of the Southeastern Theatre Conference, and was a contributing writer for JCPS’ textbook for the 11th grade Arts and Humanities survey course and for YouthArts Tapestry, a Kentucky Arts Council publication.