Performing Arts

‘Dirty Dancing’ on stage holds its own

along@kcstar.com

Adapting a beloved work from one art form to another is always a dicey proposition. The movie seldom lives up to the expectations of readers who fell in love with the book.

Much rarer is a translation to the stage from the silver screen. So how does the live adaptation of the iconic 1987 romance film “Dirty Dancing” fare?

I don’t know — yet. Because while I’ve just seen the touring show Tuesday night at the Music Hall, I’m a rare breed among Generation Xers: I’ve never seen even 30 seconds of “Dirty Dancing.”

In fact, before tonight, I didn’t have even the faintest clue what it was about. Something about a summer camp, maybe? Oh, and there has to be dancing.

So, does “Dirty Dancing” work as theater? Very much so, for the most part.

Like most of today’s Broadway-style productions, it’s loud, glib and colorful, staged at a machine-gun pace. It does cram ten pounds of plot and songs into a five-pound sack. But that’s the mode of the day, and “Dirty Dancing” fits right in among its peers.

Set in the pre-Beatles summer of 1963, the show tells the story of Frances “Baby” Houseman, who is summer vacationing with her wealthy family at a resort. Its simple plot of a star-crossed romance is old news to fans of the film.

Any show with “Dancing” in the title better deliver, and the hoofing is the best part here. The young, astoundingly attractive dance chorus displays energy and precision that impress throughout.

“Jukebox” or “trunk song” musicals, where the lyrics don’t really relate to the plot, have been with us forever. Audiences in 1902 were treated to a stage adaptation of “The Wizard of Oz” that included song titles such as “Hurrah for Baffin’s Bay.”

But in today’s post-Rodgers and Hammerstein world, musicals cobbled together with ill-fitting hits from artists such as Queen and Billy Joel are a big step back. Sure, audiences enjoy hearing the songs they love, but it’s a cynical ploy to get people into seats. The musical theater as a form deserves better.

The creators of “Dirty Dancing” don’t do that. Much more a play/revue hybrid than a musical, it doesn’t even feature much singing. Most of the live vocals come from characters performing in shows-within-shows, or as featured vocalists addressing the audience directly. It’s a smart choice.

The program lists an astounding 45 numbers, many of them doo-wop and ’60s classics such as “This Magic Moment” and “In the Still of the Night.” The crackerjack onstage band plays much of the music as underscoring, though the sound mix made the actors’ voices hard to hear several times Tuesday night.

Ensemble members and designated vocalists Doug Carpenter and especially Jennlee Shallow dazzle with standout solos.

Gillian Abbott is instantly appealing as lead Frances “Baby” Houseman, whose forbidden romance with bad-boy dance instructor Johnny Castle is a forgone conclusion the moment he slinks onstage in a skintight black outfit. Baby is easily the most self-possessed and interesting character in the show, and Abbott draws her characterization clearly from her first scene.

Christopher Tierney smolders as Johnny, who has a Lothario reputation at the resort. The abbreviated dialogue gives him little time to warm up to Baby, and the director might have softened his performance a bit in the first act. But he’s perfectly cast in the role, and inhabits it with a sensual, muscular physicality that makes it obvious why teenage Baby throws caution to the wind for the much-older man.

The striking physical production uses a series of strategic platforms, louvered panels, LED screens and projections on scrims to create a wide variety of looks with minimal stagecraft. Several fellow audience members around me bemoaned its lack of literalness and practical set pieces, and it is obvious the show was designed with economy in mind. But it offers great visual flexibility for a story that takes place in a large number of different locations.

Those too many venues and clipped exchanges of lines between characters are the main clues that the musical originally came from a film. It could still do with a judicious editor’s eye on whether some scenes could be consolidated or even eliminated, especially in the second act.

But overall, this “Dirty Dancing” feels like it was conceived for the stage from the beginning. It has a few stumbles. The cheesy pop of radio hit “Hungry Eyes” is completely at odds with the rest of the music. And while the famous line, “Nobody puts Baby in a corner,” drew hoots of glee from a large number of movie fans in the audience, its staging here is physically awkward and puzzlingly timed.

Maybe it will make more sense after I see the movie. So I will do that soon, and then update this review. More to come.

UPDATE: I watched the movie. And it made me appreciate the stage show even more. Click here for more.

Onstage

“Dirty Dancing” continues through Sunday at the Music Hall, 301 W. 13th St. Go to theaterleague.com/kansascity for ticket information.

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