Recommended *** I found it odd that the touring production of “Dirty Dancing” that opened Tuesday night at the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts seemed to assume that theatre patrons had seen the movie. More than one person I knew was there, none of whom had seen the film, and each had a hard time following the plot. The script (Eleanor Bergstein) was simply too paltry to get a clear idea of what was going on without some previous familiarity with the material. For those who had seen the film, the most interesting moments were scenes that had been added about the civil rights movement and freedom riders although the dialogue concerning those seismic events in American history was surprisingly and undeservedly trite. The fact that many of the actor’s frequently spoke their lines so softly that they were practically inaudible did nothing to facilitate understanding of the action and the uniformity of the problem makes me question why director James Powell didn’t spot the problem as early as rehearsal.
Then there was the matter of the acting itself. With the exception of Gillian Abbot as Baby, the daughter of a wealthy family vacationing at resort in the Catskill’s, who did manage to cultivate an incredibly high degree of earnest innocence and authenticity, the acting was fairly unimpressive. Mark Elliot Wilson and Margot White are utterly stale as Baby’s parents: Dr. Jake and Marjorie Houseman. They couldn’t deliver their lines convincingly, make credible gestures, or even move their bodies across the stage in a way that looked realistic (only partially a result of Powell’s bizarre blocking in which people move in straight lines of the geometric variety). The fact that both actors suffered from the same shortcomings again makes suspect a problem with Powell’s direction.
Robbie (played by Understudy Josh Drake), a college-kid working as a water, came off as utterly unexciting and uninteresting, leaving one to wonder how he ever could have won the affections of both Baby’s sister, Lisa (an over-the-top Alex Scolari), and Penny Johnson (a surprisingly vulnerable Jenny Winton) simultaneously. The latter is Johnny Castle’s (played competently enough by Christopher Tierney) dance partner. He leads the lower-class (that phrase is how the other characters and, at times even the script, condescendingly treats them) entertainment staff. When Penny gets pregnant, Baby helps her procure an illegal abortion that goes horribly wrong and Baby’s father finds out and misconstrues the paternity as Johnny’s. Baby, enduring her father’s disdain, agrees to train as Johnny’s dance partner so that she can take Penny’s place on stage.
The byproduct of the poor acting, underwritten script, unnaturally linear blocking, and all around bad-direction was that it was impossible to care about what was happening, even if what is happening is abortion and class privilege, which should be hard topics to observe not only dispassionately, but with complete apathy, however one feels about them. The music (Alan J. Pado and John Miller) was enjoyable even if almost all of the songs were heavily truncated, and even if John Antony, Jennlee Shallow, Joshua Keith, Adam Roberts powerful voices and delivery in their few solo numbers could felt almost like a protest at being woefully underused. The production’s most impressive feature by far was the excellent, eponymous, dancing, but it would be disturbing if it wasn’t (Choreographed by Kate Champion and Michelle Lynch), and the overwhelming sophistication of the technical direction, effects, and coordination. The various, complex, set designs (Stephen Brimson Lewis) where moved a more great deal more gracefully than the director moved the actors. In fact, Powell’s blocking improved dramatically when his actors have to interact with the changing sets, and the technical aspects of the play were able to produce moments of feeling and beauty that they actor’s weren’t. Much of the scenery was digital, and iconic moments from the film were Johnny and Baby practiced dancing in a field and a lake which were staged quite convincingly against video projections (John Driscoll) with the help of some clever sound design (Bobby Aitken) so that people who know the movie might very enjoy seeing those scenes replicated on stage. But even during these feats, its remarkably hard to care about what you are seeing.
Dirty Dancing Runs through October 11th at the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts, located at 929 North Water Street. Performances are Thursday. The Performance Schedule as follows: Thursday, October 8th 7:30 pm. Friday October 9th 8:00 pm, Saturday October 10th, 2:00 pm and 8:00, and Sunday, October 11th 1:00 pm and 6:30 pm. Tickets are between $35 and $110. They can be purchased by calling the box-office at 414-273-7206 or by visiting http://www.marcuscenter.org/show/dirty-dancing/. The show runs approximately 2 hours and 15 minutes with one 20 minute intermission.