Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Dirty Dancing - The Classic Story on Stage Theatre Review

Mambo Magic

Now what? After knocking the ball out of the park with Dirty Dancing - The Classic Story on Stage, what does the National Theatre do for an encore? It's a nice problem to have; but seriously, I can't imagine any other show (at any theatre) matching or surpassing Eleanor Bergstein's brilliant adaptation of the 1987 box office smash. Dirty Dancing has it all: Comedy, familiarity, sex appeal and enough toe-tappin' awesomeness to keep this critic grinning from ear to ear for the show's full duration.

For those of you who don't remember the story... Give me a break: You're not reading this review, unless you know this story backwards and forwards. Rich family visits fancy resort in the summer of 1963. Younger daughter falls in love with sexy dance instructor, comes of age... has "the time of her life," etc.

Heck, even I liked the original film: I actually took two different girls to see it in the theaters (on two different occasions, of course.) At the time, it was the ultimate date movie. The stage version is equally hot, if not hotter. Jillian Mueller and Samuel Pergande sizzle as Baby and Johnny, the respective stars of the show. Mueller is a dead ringer for Jennifer Grey (at least from a distance) while Pergande channels True Blood's Eric Northman... right down to his impressive six-pack. It's impossible to take your eyes off either of them; and trust me, more than half the ladies in the audience were drinking in Mr. Pergande for sizable chunks of the show. Note to self: Do more sit-ups... lots more.

Mueller and Pergande ooze chemistry, whether locked in each other's arms or practicing "the lift" in a make-believe body of water (hats off to Stephen Brimson Lewis' creative and sometimes hilarious set design.) Mueller's job seems a lot harder (It's difficult to recover from an opening line like 'I carried a watermelon.') For one thing, she has to spend half the show pretending to dance poorly. Pergande has no such trouble: He glides up and down the stage with the grace of a gazelle, winning the attention (and affection) of frisky resort guests along the way.

Speaking of great movements, keep an eye out for Jenny Winton who dazzles as Penny, Johnny's platonic dance partner. Her 3-way (easy now) dance instruction with Baby & Johnny is S-E-X-Y; but it only touches upon her superb talents throughout. I can't wait to see more of her.

There's no shortage of familiar songs to enjoy; although not all of them are performed equally. Jennlee Shallow struggles to contain her powerful pipes during "Do You Love Me?" and "You Don't Own Me," but almost brings the house down during a terrific duet of "I've Had the Time of My Life" with Doug Carpenter. Speaking of, Mr. Carpenter earns top honors for his soulful rendition of "In the Still of the Night." Had time allowed, I would have given him a one-man standing ovation. The show moves along at a swift pace... sometimes too swift, not allowing for well-deserved applause interruptions. The same holds true for a few great songs... teased at, but never performed in full (i.e. "Hey! Baby," among others.) Thankfully, "Hungry Eyes" is spared such editing: It's definitely one of my favorites (and not just because of the "Penny-Baby-Johnny sandwich" it accompanies.)

Lest you think the live version of Dirty Dancing is all about dancing, think again. There's an element of humor that delivers this show to another level (perhaps even higher than the movie.) The scene where Johnny and Baby improvise driving is priceless; as is a bath of strobe lighting across the audience, right before intermission, signaling a "consummation" of sorts off-camera. Also worth a laugh or two, Baby's older sister (Emily Rice as Lisa) and father (Mark Elliot Wilson as Dr. Houseman.) The latter shares the line of the night, when referring to Baby, 'Our Baby's going to change the world,' followed up by Baby's perfectly timed, 'and Missy's going to decorate it.'

The show runs almost two-and-a-half hours (including a generous 20-minute intermission) yet literally flies by for the most part. There are a few dead moments (political messages = swing & miss) but not nearly enough to slow down this "Soul Train" of sexy fun. Dirty Dancing continues at the National through September 14th (click here to purchase tickets) before moving on to the national tour.

Grade: A-