Review: ‘Dirty Dancing: The Classic Story on Stage’ at the Merriam Theater

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Dirty Dancing, a light, low-budget movie, came out of nowhere to become one of the biggest hits of 1987, and it’s still a beloved movie today. Written by Eleanor Bergstein, it showcased the talents of the late Patrick Swayze amidst a mixture of danceable tunes, romance and nostalgia. Dirty Dancing: The Classic Story on Stage, directed by James Powell, adds live music and dance to the well-known story of Baby, a teenaged girl who falls for a hot dance instructor, Johnny, at a summer resort while on vacation with her family in 1963.

Christopher Tierney and Bronwyn Reed. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

Christopher Tierney and Bronwyn Reed. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

One of the challenges in adapting films to live theater is the limited space onstage and the inability to encompass the landscapes and scenery that can be depicted onscreen. This stage production uses technology to capture the feel and expansion of a summer vacation lodge in the Catskills. Stephen Brimson Lewis’ set design works in tandem with lighting (Tim Mitchell), sound (Bobby Aitken) and video and projection (Jon Driscoll) to create a cinematic-style experience. Most breathtaking were scenes in which Johnny and Baby practiced lifts outdoors. Through special effects, the design team created a rainstorm, a lake, a forest and a field of tall grass, all which seemed quite realistic.

Dirty Dancing: The Classic Story on Stage also shines with its live dancing and music. The orchestra is conducted by Alan J. Prado, and consists of keyboards, guitar, reeds, drums and other percussion, brass and trumpet. There is also live singing by members of the ensemble. Chante Carmel possesses a powerful and gorgeous voice and sings and dances in several numbers. Particularly noteworthy are her solos in “We Shall Overcome” and “Do You Love Me?” Jordan Edwin André, as Billy, brings the house down with “In the Still of the Night.” Alyssa Brizzi, as Baby’s self-obsessed older sister Lisa, is amusing and on point when she performs “Lisa’s Hula.” Her hilarious performance in the talent show sequence is “so bad that it’s good!”

Christopher Tierney and Jennifer Mealani Jones. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

Christopher Tierney and Jennifer Mealani Jones. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

Of course, any show with a title like Dirty Dancing rises or falls on its dancing. Michele Lynch is the choreographer, and she bases the dances on the movie choreography by Kate Champion. The flexible ensemble is made up of accomplished dancers. They switch back and forth between playing professional dancers/teachers and guests of the resort who are learning to dance. As Johnny Castle, the dance instructor, Christopher Tierney never misses a beat. His dancing is just as mesmerizing and sexy as Swayze’s in the screen version and his acting is particularly good in the dance rehearsals and the intimate scenes with Baby, played by Rachel Boone. Boone was well cast as Baby. In addition to her solid acting and dancing, she has an alluring presence that lights up the stage. Jennifer Mealani Jones (as Penny Johnson, Johnny’s dance partner) is a remarkable dancer who is also convincing in her role.

The musical ends the way fans of the movie want it to end: there’s a grand finale of “Time of My Life,” sung by Carmel and André; Baby and Johnny do their iconic dance after the “Nobody puts Baby in a corner” line; and the rest of the cast joins in the dance. All in all, a quickly-paced and entertaining production!

(Note: Photographs provided by the production depict Bronwyn Reed in the role of Baby. Ms. Reed has since left the production, and the role is now being played by Rachel Boone.)

Running Time: 2 hours and 15 minutes, including a 20-minute intermission.

Bronwyn Reed and Christopher Tierney. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

Bronwyn Reed and Christopher Tierney. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

Dirty Dancing: The Classic Story on Stage plays through May 21, 2017, and is presented by the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts at the Merriam Theater – 250 South Broad Street, Philadelphia, PA. For tickets call the box office at (215) 893-1999, or purchase them online.

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