Dirty Dancing: The Classic Story on Stage

I am an unironic fan of 1987 coming-of-age film classic “Dirty Dancing.” In my humble opinion, there have been but two actors within the last 30 years able to pull off a seamless transition between the best in song and dance, and the virile masculinity of a rugged action star. Those two actors are the gone-too-soon Patrick Swayze, and the thankfully still-kicking Hugh Jackman.

There are, of course, many other reasons to love the movie. That soundtrack. Jennifer Grey’s beautiful curly hair. The nostalgia for the early 1960s. But really? “Dirty Dancing” turned Swayze into an icon — deservedly so.

And yet, the film is not without its problems, one of them being its virtual disregard of the Civil Rights era. Sure, heroine Baby Houseman has vague notions of joining the Peace Corps and making a difference, challenging her father to walk the walk of upper middle class white liberalism by accepting her relationship with dancer Johnny Castle. But as Baby herself notes in the movie, as well as in Broadway in Chicago’s production of “Dirty Dancing,” “You told me you wanted me to change the world, to make it better. But you meant by becoming a lawyer or an economist, and marrying someone from Harvard.”

The stage musical, directed in this limited Windy City run by James Powell, attempts to address the sociopolitical shortcomings of the source material in its first act. Making much over Neil Kellerman’s revisionist humanity (in the film, the character is a proud one percenter), actor Ryan Jesse gawkily and charmingly plans a Southern Freedom Ride with several members of the resort staff. There is a community listening of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech around the vacation bonfire. The scene enriches the fun and frothy experience of the production’s striking and sustained song and dance display.

Alas, those attempts at serious conversation ultimately go nowhere at all in the second act. They are lost in a bewildering rotation of scenery and set pieces, interspersed with small snatches of dialogue from characters who would probably break the metrics functionality of their Fitbits in 2015, there’s so much walking on and offstage. That’s a fair metaphor for my overall assessment of “Dirty Dancing” the stage production: Too busy and unfocused, too much green screen and too much promenade.

The show does have a full awareness of its camp, which is a plus. In an amusing dance training montage, the terrific Gillian Abbott and Christopher Tierney, as Baby and Johnny, move through a series of natural events (swimming, rain, etc.) that simply can’t be staged believably with only lights and moving parts. So the technical team and actors give up entirely and hand the audience a knowing wink, infused with affectionate warmth and respect for its inspiration.

The work is nothing if not faithful to the ’80s cultural phenomenon of “Dirty Dancing.” Most of Baby’s classic wardrobe is carefully re-created by Costume Designer Jennifer Irwin. In fact Irwin does a spectacular job overall capturing the trends and style of the “Mad Men” era, with a modern stage nod to vibrant color. The dialogue is purposefully intact, not withstanding some edits and the addition of scenes that as mentioned, beef up some side characters and attempt to provide historical context.

True fans of the film will enjoy Broadway in Chicago’s mounting of “Dirty Dancing.” And they will be positively overwhelmed by the vocal talent of Jennlee Shallow and Doug Carpenter, who evenly distribute subtlety and show-stopping power in new renditions of standards like “In the Still of the Night (I’ll Remember)” and “(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life.”

But the show has its limits, despite trying to be everything. And that won’t be enough for “Dancing” newcomers. This becomes painfully apparent throughout the production’s second act. A lot less of everything would amount to more.

“Dirty Dancing” runs through August 30 at the Cadillac Palace Theatre, 151 W. Randolph, Chicago, IL. For information or tickets call 800-775-2000 or visit the Broadway in Chicago website.

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