At a key moment in the Dirty Dancing musical, currently kicking off its national tour at the, er, National, Samuel Pergande’s Johnny struts through the audience, mounts the stage, walks confidently up to a table and delivers the line the audience has been waiting for since they entered the theater. Hell, since they bought their tickets.
He delivers it well. The house erupts in cheers. Hoots. Hollers. Whistles. The whole nine yards.
Meanwhile, all my snobby ass can do is grit my teeth, hold steady to my chair and resist the frantic urge to rise and righteously exclaim: “My god, people. That is not a corner. She is not in a corner!”
But that would be useless. And at this point possibly result in my death. Nostalgia is a fierce beast. Unfightable. Indefatigable. And judging by the crowd that filled the National, one hell of of a commercial driver.
Thus, Dirty Dancing.
Have I mentioned that the performances are largely great? They are. The night is absolutely owned by honest-to-god Jennifer Grey lookalike Jillian Mueller, she of off-the-chart charisma, comic timing and, when the time comes to bust it out, smoking sexiness.
Lots of folks can dance. Lots of folks can act. But it takes a special level of talent and precision to show the arc of a talented but untrained neophyte learning to dance. The faults and stumbles. The frustration of a missed step. The eureka moments when technique and intent match up at last and the body meets the music and magic happens. An ability to sell these moments of creative development are the mark of a special performer like Mueller. Big career ahead for this one, for sure.
Jenny Winton is another highlight as Penny, bringing real pathos to the abortion plot that drives most of the story’s drama. She and Mueller, surprisingly enough, actually have the most chemistry of any onstage pairing. Even more than between the central couple of Mueller and Pergande. Winton is the night’s best dancer, her architectural legs inspiring my companion to lean over and whisper “my god, those things never end.” Dirty Dancing is never better than during a brief, wordless dance lesson in which Johnny and Penny team up to perfect Baby’s form.
But such moments of heat are largely missing otherwise. For a show called Dirty Dancing, the actual dancing seems largely safe. Just enough skin and the occasional grind to provide requisite levels of naughtiness for the National crowd. Maybe this is a false memory, but it all seemed a little dirtier in the movie. Unlike the movie, there’s no hint of danger in Baby’s discovery of the relatively steamy “staff-only” underworld of the resort to which her well-heeled family has retreated for the summer. It all seems like good clean fun down there, which is actually a bit of a disappointment.
There’s a lot of great design work here, with Jennifer Irwin’s bright, colorful costumes being the highlight. Kudos as well to Jon Driscoll for his projection work. There’s certainly no lack of talent on display. The central problem with Dirty Dancing is that it doesn’t know what kind of musical it wants to be. Is it the romantic story of Baby’s sexual awakening? A dance showcase? A 60’s songbook? An 80’s pastiche? A shot-for-shot remake of the film?
DIRTY DANCING – The Classic Story On Stage
Closes September 14, 2014
The National Theatre
1321 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW
2 hours, 25 minutes with 1 intermission
Tickets: $48 – $98
Tuesday thru Sunday
The latter actually makes for Dirty Dancing’s best moments, surprisingly enough. Johnny and Baby’s lip-synched floor-crawl flirtation to “Love is Strange”. The dance lesson on a log. That climactic, iconic lift. All great moments, executed beautifully, if by their very origin uninspired.
The best storyline, Baby’s dance education, is largely completed by intermission, ending the first act on a high note. But all momentum is lost during the overstuffed second act, so filled with hastily-introduced secondary and tertiary romantic subplots and an interminable set up for the climactic year-end talent show that Baby and Johnny disappear for long, pace-destroying periods. All this seemingly in service of shoving in just… one… more….song, stretching a 100 minute movie’s worth of material to two hours plus until the whole thing loses all cohesion. Even the high provided by that climactic lift is largely undone by an over-long denouement that has to wrap up all those romances and minor-subplots and give every character one last little dance showcase.
So that’s Dirty Dancing. Full of technical virtuosity and some great performances but constantly undermining itself with boring plot digressions and a desperate need to appeal to all tastes and offend none. It’s restrained when it should be hot and indulgent when it should be concise, and by the time all those disparate elements have to wrap up, the show has really painted itself into a corner.
Oh come on, it was just sitting there.
Dirty Dancing – The Classic Story On Stage . book by Eleanor Bergstein national tour directed by James Powell . Featuring Samuel Pergande, Jillian Mueller, Doug Carpenter, Jerome Harmann-Hardeman, Caralyn Kozlowski, Jesse Liebman, Gary Lynch, Herman Petras, Emily Rice, Mark Elliot Wilson and Jenny Winton. The ensemble: John Antony, Rachel Boone, Amanda Brantley, Jon Drake, Josh Drake, Sam Edgerly, Rashaan James, II, Joshua Keith, Alexandra Matteo, Kevin Munhall, Phoebe Pearl, Virginia Preston, Michael Thomas Pugliese, Jennlee Shallow and Nicole Spencer. Choreography by Michele Lynch based on the original choreography by Kate Champion. Set design: Stephen Brimson Lewis . Lighting design: Tim Mitchell . Costume design: Jennifer Irwin . Sound design: Bobby Aitken . Video and production design: Jon Driscoll . Hair design: Bernie Ardia . Music supervisor and orchestrations: Conrad Helfrich . Music director: Alan Plado . Presented by National Theatre . Reviewed by Ryan Taylor.
Leslie Milk . Washingtonian The show is terrific.
Jennifer Minich . MDTheatreGuide The chemistry between Pergande and Mueller is unpracticed and palpably electric.
Heather Nadolny . BroadwayWorld Is it a well-written and well-developed story? Not really. Is it a fun one? You bet.
…a theatrical thrill ride[/ezcol_3quarter_end]