By Alisha Zygmuntowicz
When the movie Dirty Dancing came out in 1987, I was starting my sophomore year of college. I found myself drawn to Baby Houseman’s idealism and desire to make the world a better place. Fast forward twenty-seven years and I find myself reminiscing of how carefree my life was and how anxious I was to get my grown up life started, much like Baby. As I was preparing to attend Dirty Dancing – The Classic Story on Stage at DPAC, I was thrilled with the prospect of getting to see the story unfold in person. Eleanor Bergstein, the screenwriter for the film and book writer for the musical, was able to enhance the original movie experience by adding “more Baby and Johnny scenes, more about the family, more songs I couldn’t afford the last time, and, most exciting of all-more dancing.” She recognized the audience’s desire “to step through screen and be there while the story was happening.” She hit the target.
Dirty Dancing opened in November 2004 at the Theater Royal in Sydney, Australia and toured throughout Australia and New Zealand, boasting eighteen months of sold out performances. A new performance followed in March of 2006 at the Theater Neue Flora in Hamburg, Germany. The production was a huge success achieving the highest advance in European history. In October of 2006 performances opened on London’s West End and become the longest running show in the history of Aldwych Theater, closing in July 2011. It went on to tour UK for an additional two years. The world tour has performed on stages from Toronto, Canada to Cape, South Africa. DPAC is the stop after the official opening at The National Theater in Washington D.C. for the current US tour.
The story follows Frances “Baby” Houseman’s family vacation in the Catskills the summer of 1963. You experience a love story, sexy dancing to everything from rock and roll to R & B, and the clash of two very different worlds. Baby is drawn in by the Kellerman’s staff’s boisterous after hour’s activities and the resort’s dance instructor, Johnny Castle. As she becomes involved in their personal lives, you see her idealism and naivety drive her choices. She falls in love, fights with and grows closer to her family, all while learning to dance to help out the female dance instructor, Penny.
As the first act opened I found myself absorbed by the music. The echo of This Magic Moment sung by Jennlee Shallow is still in my mind, where I am sure it will stay for a while. The music, as iconic as it is for the movie, was chosen by Eleanor Bergstein before writing the story so it fit the stage even better than it did the screen.
Much like Baby, played by Jillian Mueller, I was enthralled by the dancing. To add to the overall nostalgia of seeing the dance routines was Mueller’s striking resemblance to Jennifer Grey’s as Baby in the original film. Johnny and Penny, portrayed by Samuel Pergande and Jenny Winton, made ballroom dancing look as easy as walking for you or me. The ensemble’s dirty dancing in the staff quarters was raunchy but fabulous.
To add to her uncanny resemblance to Grey, Mueller portrayed the role of a girl blossoming into a woman, pushing the limits while seeking her father’s approval in a way that would have made even the toughest of movie fans happy.
Doug Carpenter, portraying Billy Johnny’s cousin, caught my attention as well as the rest of audience’s attention in the second act. His performance of In The Still of The Night was stirring. The audience cheered with the “No one puts Baby in the corner” line. Shallow and Carpenter stole the final act with The Time of My Life confirmed by the standing ovation during the final bows.
An aspect of the show that I truly appreciated was the clever set changes, props and projected backgrounds. Positioning the orchestra above the stage moved them from an unseen support role to at times a more central focus to add to the flow from scene to scene. The props used were just enough to set the scene and not distract from the actors; a bed and chair in Johnny’s room, barn doors, stairs and small stage for the staff quarters. The projected backdrops completed the scene.
Another positive was the lighting. The design kept you focused on the action, created the ambiance of the scenes. At the end of Act 1 the lights moved to the audience, it was like starlight moving across the crowd, a nice touch.
Throughout the show, the crowd was absorbed and engaged erupting into applause at all the big scenes in the story; Carpenter’s In The Still Of The Night, Rice’s Lisa’s Hula, and the unforgettable line “no one puts Baby in the corner.” Carpenter and Shallow also got a huge applause at the end.
In the end, I left DPAC feeling that this was a wonderful show that left me wanting to see it again, soon. It allowed me to leave real life for two hours and get lost in wonderful music and dance.