Thursday, February 25, 2016

"Dirty Dancing: The Classic Story on Stage"

Dirty Dancing: The Classic Story on Stage
Eleanor Bergstein

Christopher Tierney and the Cast of Dancers of "Dirty Dancing"
As two voices in duet brilliantly sing the words all in the audience have been salivating for over two hours to hear, the dance of all dances begins in sultry swerves and dips to raised cheers (and probably some tears) among the thousand-plus in attendance.  In the end, the Golden Gate Theatre is packed for one main reason – to see Johnny and “Baby” grind, swirl, and twirl their synchronized bodies and then to lead up to that final, magnificent lift as she flies triumphantly above his sweat-dripping body.  Eleanor Bergstein’s stage version of the 1987 hit, still-famous film, Dirty Dancing (starring a young and hot Patrick Swayze and equally sexy Jennifer Grey) took its first bow in Australia in 2004, broke box office and run records in London starting in 2006, and smashed more records in Germany and Canada before hitting sold-out performances in various U.S. cities in 2008-2009.  Now in the midst of a U.S., thirty-one-city tour that began in late 2014, Dirty Dancing: The Classic Story on Stage arrives in San Francisco at SHN’s Golden Gate Theatre bringing a troupe of exuberant dancers with moves and moxie that are sure once again to please fans old and young.

Rachel Boone & Christopher Tierney
On her way to college and then to the newly formed Peace Corps, Frances “Baby” Houseman is first spending her summer of ’63 with her well-to-do family at Kellerman’s, one of the “Borscht-belt,” upscale resorts in the Catskills that once welcomed mostly Jewish families escaping the heat of the New York environs.  Johnny Castle is a house painter’s son who comes in his summers to teach cha-cha to doctors’ and lawyers’ wives, who in turn salivate over his six-pack, muscular body and wavy hair-locks.  The two happen on each other after Baby helps one of the waiters, Billy, carry three huge watermelons into an after-hours, staff-only party where current dances like mashed potato and twist are turning much grittier and grimier than they are on American Bandstand as hips swirl and bodies meld.  An unexpected pregnancy by one of the resort dancers (Penny) leaves Johnny without a partner for a weekly dance engagement at a nearby hotel – a role that Billy convinces a reluctant Johnny to let Baby step into.   A week of intense mambo lessons with Johnny of how to step, dip, and undulate leads to their intense partnering in more ways than just on the dance floor, which in turn leads to major family eruptions when a worried father figures out what is going on.

With a mass of friendly tight curls and a curious spirit aching for some adventure beyond resort games, Rachel Boone is a Baby who lets her natural caution fly to the wind as she moves beyond her first awkward attempts at loosening her groins and slowly catches on how to move on the dance floor with push and purpose.  Her transformation of Baby from teenager to womanhood is thorough and convincing; and the determined courage she brings to Baby to stand up for what is right, no matter the cost to her, is palpable.

Never would one guess that in 2010, Christopher Tierney fell thirty feet onto the stage and seriously hurt himself while playing on Broadway in Spiderman: Turn Off the Dark.  His magnetic good looks and his fabulous skills as a dancer show no evident scars from that horrible accident. His Johnny is just the right combination both of cockiness and cool demeanor, of flirt and sincerity, and of no-cares-for-the-world and loyalty-at-all-costs.  But once he is either with a partner or starring solo on stage, there is no way not to be totally captivated watching this Johnny make moves that turn every inch of his body into a gyrating master of the art of hot, ‘dirty’ dance.

Christopher Tierney & Rachel Boone
Together, Rachel Boone and Christopher Tierney slowly create an electricity that eventually snaps and sizzles each time they are together.  Much credit of their individual winning performances comes in the sexual synergy they create when in each other’s presence.  They can also be quite funny and silly as a twosome, as in a sequence of Johnny’s teaching Baby in a field and then in water how to dance leap against a huge projected backdrop (part on the night’s ongoing, excellent videos and projections of Jon Driscoll). 

A large cast surrounds and ably supports the evening’s two main stars.  Key standouts include Jesse Carrey-Beaver as the resort owner’s dorky son, Niel, with eyes and intentions for Baby but with dance steps and romantic moves comically awkward.  Evan Alexander Smith is the womanizing, rather sleazy but sure-of-himself Robbie Gould who is two-timing left and right Baby’s older, naïve, and highly jealous sister, Lisa (Alex Scolari).  Jerome Harmann-Hardeman is the resort’s bandleader who also brings rich solo voice to a few numbers like “Love Man.”  Doug Carpenter is a particular winner as Billy Kostecki, a waiter who becomes buddies with Baby and who displays great charisma and real heart along with a knockout, rock-star singing voice.  Adrienne Walker lends a luxurious voice in “The Magic Moment” and sends the audience into swoons as she teams with Doug Carpenter in the much-anticipated “(I’ve Had) the Time of My Life).”

The choreography of Michele Lynch (inspired by original choreographer Kate Champion) -- as performed in every style from fox trot and cha-cha to 1960s rock favorites to wild and immensely imaginative numbers with bodies flying in every direction – is the real reason to come to Dirty Dancing.  To accompany the fabulous dance numbers, there is great instrumental music by Conrad Helfrich and his terrific band on a second level high above the main stage, but there is actually little singing and few singers in this so-called musical.  The easily switchable set designs of Stephen Brimson Lewis, the stunning and inventive scenic projections on those set backgrounds of the aforementioned Jon Driscoll, and the colorful bobby skirts and formal gowns as well as skin-tight pants and tops of costume designer Jennifer Irwin all combine for eye-pleasing and story-enhancing effects.  And while the story is easy to follow, the book of this play of mostly dance is overall choppy and uninspired. Director James Powell gets us quickly through Ms. Bergstein’s often-clunky dialogue and helps us move on and concentrate on the more spell-bounding dance.

Leaving this touring production of Dirty Dancing: The Classic Story on Stage without having an overall good time and being at least a little sensuously aroused would be almost next to impossible.  There is much to like as long as one does not come in expecting more than just snippets of many well-known songs of the era and more than cursory treatment of a story that moves clumsily around all the eye-popping dance.

Rating: 4 E

Dirty Dancing: The Classic Story on Stage continues through March 20, 2016 at SHN’s Golden Gate Theatre, 1 Taylor Street, San Francisco, CA.  Tickets are available at

Photo Credits: Matthew Murphy

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