Tapping into a 1960s vibe with ‘Dirty Dancing’

SHARE Tapping into a 1960s vibe with ‘Dirty Dancing’
SHARE Tapping into a 1960s vibe with ‘Dirty Dancing’

Sex, race, social class, political activism, the changing roles of women and the issue of abortion. This might sound like a bucket list of contemporary themes. But in “Dirty Dancing — The Classic Story on Stage,” the musical, whose almost cult-like following clearly feeds on the hit 1987 film of the same name, it is a time capsule back to 1963.

While the show, now making a national touring stop at the Cadillac Palace Theatre, takes audiences back to the summer of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, and the months just before the assassination of John F. Kennedy, it is the coming of age of one Frances “Baby” Houseman ( Gillian Abbott) — the brainy, curious and somewhat naive daughter of an upper middle-class Jewish family vacationing at a resort in the Catskills — who is the real focus of the story. And that summer, just before she is to head off to Mount Holyoke College to study “the economies of underdeveloped countries,” wouldn’t be half so memorable were it not for Johnny Castle (Christopher Tierney), the resort’s impossibly sexy blue-collar dance instructor, whose job is to keep the hearts of middle-aged wives pumping aerobically.

Complicating matters is the fact that while Frances is unquestionable “a daddy’s girl,” her seemingly liberal dad, a doctor, does not want Johnny to be in her life.

Gillian Abbott and Doug Carpenter in “Dirty Dancing – The Classic Story on Stage.” (Photo: Matthew Murphy)

Gillian Abbott and Doug Carpenter in “Dirty Dancing – The Classic Story on Stage.” (Photo: Matthew Murphy)

To be sure, you wouldn’t go to listen to the clunky book for the show that Eleanor Bergstein adapted from her own screenplay. And director James Powell does little to sidestep the stereotypes. But it must be said that Johnny’s bigline, “Nobody puts ‘Baby’ in the corner,” still elicits cheers. And the scene about a botched abortion (still illegal in 1963) should serve as a reminder of just how horrible, even fatal, back-room procedures could be.

Without question it is the dancing — and the ensemble, moving to the superb ballroom and Latin choreography of Craig Wilson, is terrific — that makes all the difference in this true jukebox musical.

‘DIRTY DANCING – THE CLASSIC STORY ON STAGE’

Recommended

When: Through Aug. 30

Where: Cadillac Palace Theatre, 151 W. Randolph

Tickets: $18 – $85

Info: (800) 775-2000;

www.BroadwayInChicago.com

Run time:2 hours and 15 minutes with one intermission

Tierney, who Chicago audiences will remember from his days with Hubbard Street Dance Chicago (he also was an early accident victim in the original cast of Broadway’s “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark”), remains a sensational dancer with charismatic stage presence. And he easily captures the sense of a guy with blue-collar roots who is filled with resentment at the Ivy League crowd’s sense of entitlement. Abbott is fresh and real, even if the show’s conceit that she masters a hugely difficult dance routine in days stretches reality to the breaking point.

Jenny Winton (who spent five seasons with the Joffrey Ballet, and has the technique to prove it) is superb as Penny Johnson, Castle’s sexy dance partner with the gorgeous legs and the ability to finesse every daring lift.

Most of the songs. aside from those sung by the power-voiced duo of Doug Carpenter (as Johnny’s warm-hearted cousin) and leggy Jennlee Shallow (as a summer worker at the resort). arrive in the form of fragments of recordings of the early rock ‘n’ roll hits favored by the teens of the period. The mambos, rumbas and cha-chas so popular among their parents are played with zest by the small orchestra. And as the show’s subtitle, “The Classic Story on Stage,” suggests, this is very much an homage to the film, something underscored by the elaborate use of video and projections designed by Jon Driscoll.

Jennlee Shallow plays Elizabeth and Doug Carpenter is Billy Kostecki in “Dirty Dancing – The Classic Story on Stage.” (Photo: Matthew Murphy)

Jennlee Shallow plays Elizabeth and Doug Carpenter is Billy Kostecki in “Dirty Dancing – The Classic Story on Stage.” (Photo: Matthew Murphy)


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