Aaron Patrick Craven and Kaleigh Courts in DIRTY DANCING | Photo by Jeremy Daniel
By Jason Epperson
Adapting a beloved classic film like DIRTY DANCING into a stage musical is not quite as simple a task as it would seem. First, you have to make it function structurally — without cinematic transitions, hundreds of locations, a camera to tell you where to look, and the like. Then there’s the “why.” What will make an audience enjoy the stage version more than the DVD they have sitting on the shelf at home? The source material usually needs to be expanded quite a bit to fill an evening without long tracking shots, montages, and silent, intimate moments that are near impossible to re-create effectively. Everything added needs to illuminate the plot, creating a heightened experience for the live theater, otherwise, what’s the point? But change things up too much and you risk alienating fans, and worse, you’re playing with fire trying to fix what already worked.
The stage version of DIRTY DANCING was re-conceived by its original creator Eleanor Bergstein, and it shows. There are very few changes, and it’s clearly the work of a screenwriter with little-to-no theatrical experience. What works so well on screen is so often an absolute trainwreck on stage. In fact, most of Act 1 is nearly unwatchable. There are countless micro-scenes, many less than a handful of words. Actors leave the stage only to re-enter immediately, signifying a passage of time. Jokes that were intended to mildly amuse a movie theater crowd leave actors standing onstage in a cold sweat as the audience barely flinches at the punchline. It’s as if Bergstein hashed out the stage version in an afternoon. So much so, that I had to re-watch the film late at night when I returned home to compare. The musical is nearly identical, save for a few new additions that make it worse.
There’s a little throwaway line in the film when Baby is suffering Neil Kellerman’s slimy come-on. He says something about heading south with a couple of the resort’s busboys to become a freedom rider after the end of the season, perhaps in an attempt to impress Baby, who is driven by her moral compass and desire to help humanity. The musical, quite unwisely, picks this as its only point of departure from its line-for-line regurgitation of the film. This leads us to an embarrassingly superficial examination of racial relations in the early 60s. There’s a bit about having to empty the pool and refilling it if a Black employee gets in to wash some substance off him (I really don’t know what), and then everybody sits around a campfire to listen to Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.
The film takes place in 1963, the year of the speech, and the year of the assassination of President Kennedy, so a broader social context would be a sensible way to augment the plot. Disastrously, the Black characters in the show are offered no agency to support this new narrative. They are relegated to the things that were acceptable to whites before the Civil Rights Movement — namely, singing and dancing for entertainment. Lest you think I mean within the context of the show — that it’s some sort of plot point — I don’t. They sing and dance for us, the sea of white people in the audience, but are left out of the actual story. The Tito Suarez bandleader character, in a solid performance by Torrey Linder, is given a few more lines than in the film, making him a bit of an uncle/mentor, but that’s about it. He’s even relegated to singing off-stage at times. Erica Philpot gets to belt out scene change and background music, including a randomly placed “We Shall Overcome,” but isn’t given a single spoken line, even as a relationship between her and Billy Kostecki (Wayne Knight in the film, played here by Nickolaus Colõn) is offered as a budding sub-plot. In the end, Neil indeed heads off to join the freedom riders, adding a quaint little white-savior button to the show.
Thankfully, this production is redeemed, just barely, by its Baby and Johnny. Kaleigh Courts is more Alyson Hannigan than Jennifer Grey, adding innocent comedy to the affair, and it works. She hams up her inexperience, both in life and dancing, to great effect. I resisted Aaron Patrick Craven’s Johnny Castle at first, but I think that’s intentional. I think we’re made to make the same mistake Baby’s father does, judging him too quickly, and he really grows on you. Maybe I’m reading too much into it, but Craven delivers where it counts — the bravado, the vulnerability, and the dancing.
By the end of Act 1, the clunky dialog has ended and the awkward attempts at humor fade away as the sun goes down on Kansas City’s beautiful outdoor Starlight Theater, and Ken Billington’s sumptuous lighting sculpts Baby and Johnny in the famous bedroom scene. After all the preceding calamity, it’s a truly well-crafted series of moments, sounding the guh-gun of the hearts in the finally settled audience. It was truly one of the most sensual moments I’ve witnessed in a big musical. These types of romantic scenes rarely work for me, and this one landed beautifully.
The score wisely avoids the weird 80s-60s mix of the film, save for “Hungry Eyes.” There’s some new stuff, some classic songs missing, but it works ok. A true sung score might have worked better, but we don’t get that. Rarely is anyone singing their big feelings — the music is the backdrop. The band can play it, too. It’s a solid and decently sized orchestra.
You get watermelons, sunglasses, wig contests, and Lisa’s hula. And you get dancing. It’s not that dirty, and it’s not Kenny Ortega’s trademark stuff from the film, but it’s pretty darn good, particularly in the hands of Craven. He gives you the signature leap off the stage. You get the lifts. Philpot and Colōn deliver the hey babys and the never felt this ways and the just remembers of the signature song. In fact, I think the closing scene works better on stage than in the film. Maybe because it’s what we’re there for. Johnny crashes the party and the audience cheers. And it’s legitimate. He pulls Baby from the corner, and there’s some knock-out dancing.
It’s unfortunate — among all the screen-to-stage adaptations of late — that this script is so terrible, because it’s really a film primed for a musicalization, having generally one location, a theatrical device in the art of dance, a solid plot, and room for a legitimate score. But that’s commercial theater these days, I suppose. If you love the movie, you’ll have a good time at DIRTY DANCING — if you can get past the parts where the authors don’t respect your sensibility.