By Richard Ades
If you’re a fan of Dirty Dancing, you may not have the time of your life watching the stage show, but it’ll probably do until the next time you catch the 1987 flick.
Adapted by original screenwriter Eleanor Bergstein, the theatrical version tries to recapture the magic of the Jennifer Grey-Patrick Swayze romance but starts out with several strikes against it.
The first strike, of course, is that it features neither Jennifer Grey nor the late Patrick Swayze. In their place, the current touring show has Rachel Boone as Frances “Baby” Houseman, who’s vacationing with her family at a Catskills resort in 1963; and Christopher Tierney as Johnny Castle, the working-class dance instructor who attracts her attention.
Boone earns our sympathy and sometimes our laughs as the high-minded Baby, but Tierney’s Johnny is rather stiff except when he’s strutting his stuff on the dance floor. The two generate so little chemistry that when Baby finally announces her feelings for Johnny, it comes as a surprise even though we know that’s what the whole show is about.
It’s not entirely the actors’ fault. The second strike against the show is its episodic structure, especially in the hectic first act. Scenes fly by so fast that there’s no time for any emotional depth to develop.
Strike three is the quirky nature of the show, which can’t be called a real musical because it denies its stars the chance to express themselves in song. Most of the vocal numbers are delivered by minor characters such as Elizabeth (Adrienne Walker) and Billy Kostecki (Doug Carpenter). Both sing beautifully, but in the process they effectively put both Johnny and Baby in the corner.
All of this would have been enough to strike out the average show, but it hasn’t seemed to hurt Dirty Dancing, which has become a worldwide hit. The only explanation is that the show effectively, if imperfectly, rekindles viewers’ affection for the film.
The vintage pop tunes are back, along with several more that couldn’t be obtained for the film. They include Do You Love Me?, If You Were the Only Girl and the beloved finale, (I’ve Had) The Time of My Life. All are accompanied by a boisterous and brassy onstage (but usually hidden) band led by Alan J. Plado.
Also back are the early 1960s idealism and conflicts, including references to the Peace Corps and the civil rights struggle. It’s in this unstable atmosphere that Baby steps forward to help Penny (Jenny Winton), a friend of Johnny who has been impregnated by her well-to-do boyfriend. That sets up a misunderstanding that drives a wedge between Baby and her previously doting father (Mark Elliot Wilson).
Best of all, the dancing is back, courtesy of Michelle Lynch’s high-kicking and high-lifting choreography.
James Powell’s direction makes the most of the flashier moments, particularly when special effects are used to “show” Baby and Johnny practicing their dance moves in the middle of a forest, a field and even a lake. Stephen Brimson Lewis’s set designs and Jon Driscoll’s video and projection designs are the real stars here.
The supporting cast is all strong, with some of the funniest moments provided by Alex Scolari as Baby’s bratty and vocally challenged sister, Lisa.
The stage version of Dirty Dancing is hardly a classic, but it does have the advantage of reviving viewers’ memories of a classic. For many, that will be enough.
Broadway in Columbus and CAPA will present Dirty Dancing through May 22 at the Ohio Theatre, 39 E. State St., Columbus. Show times are 7:30 p.m. through Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, and 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sunday. Running time: 2 hours, 25 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $58-$153. 614-469-0939, 1-800-745-3000, broadway.columbus.com, capa.com or ticketmaster.com.