‘Dirty Dancing- The Classic Story on Stage’ at The National Theatre

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Dirty Dancing is a theatrical thrill ride that is waiting for you at The National Theatre! Based on the 1987 film of the same name, Dirty Dancing explores adolescent love, loss of innocence, social class conflicts, and the meaning of family, against a backdrop of spectacular music and breath-taking dance numbers. Eleanor Bergstein, who wrote the screenplay for the legendary film, adapted the script for the stage and combined it with a bountiful buffet of classic rock, pop, Latin, and soul music from a variety of composers.

Jillian Mueller (Baby) and Samuel Pergande (Johnny). Photo by Matthew Murphy.
Jillian Mueller (Baby) and Samuel Pergande (Johnny). Photo by Matthew Murphy.

The story takes place during the summer of 1963, when 17-year-old Frances “Baby” Houseman is vacationing with her family at a resort in the Catskill Mountains. Named after Frances Perkins, the first woman in the U.S. Cabinet, she is a serious and socially conscious young woman who plans to join the Peace Corps after college, and is proud to have a relationship of trust and respect with her father.

The custom at Kellerman’s Resort is to have Ivy League college students as waiters who look down upon the working-class entertainers. Baby is immediately intrigued by the sensual rock and roll dancing and the handsome and sexy dance instructor, Johnny Castle. Baby tries to learn some of the dance moves and later learns that Johnny’s dance partner, Penny, is pregnant by Robbie, one of the arrogant waiters. In an effort to help, Baby appeals to Robbie who indifferently proclaims that, “some people count and some people don’t!”

Baby then borrows money from her father for Penny’s abortion and that starts a chain of events which causes Baby to lose, and eventually regain, her father’s trust. Baby also volunteers to substitute for Penny as Johnny’s dance partner at an important job at a nearby resort, and Johnny has only a short time to teach Baby the routines. During these intensive lessons, romance blossoms and passion develops between these young people from two different worlds.

While the movie version of Dirty Dancing is a beloved classic, the stage version provides a level of excitement and electricity that cannot be matched on film. The chemistry between Baby and Johnny radiates from the stage to the last row of the theatre and beyond. Samuel Pergande, as Johnny, is a strong, confident, stunning, and sensational dancer, oozing sex appeal from every pore. Jillian Mueller, as Baby, has the phenomenal talent to portray a stiff, awkward beginner and a skilled professional, with beauty and ease.

Penny is portrayed by Jenny Winton, who turns in an amazing dance performance. Her movements are so lithe and smooth that they belie the human anatomy. Winton is not only a brilliant dancer, but also an actress with an impressive emotional range.

In addition, the featured players and the ensemble are amazingly talented. While we praise their superb dancing, we mustn’t overlook their singing performances. Of special note are Jennlee Shallow’s soulful rendition of “You Don’t Own Me” and Doug Carpenter’s sexually-charged essay of “In the Still of the Night.” In the finale, Shallow and Carpenter combine in an explosive performance of “I’ve Had the Time of my Life.”

Stephen Brimson Lewis’ clever set design provides a perfect sense of time and place. The setting of Kellerman’s Resort brings back memories for those of us who went with our parents to resorts in the Catskills in the 1960s, with an obsessive push for everyone to have fun, participate in all activities, and be happy all the time. The stage version of Dirty Dancing includes references to the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Mississippi Freedom Riders, and a snippet of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, followed by a haunting rendition of “We Shall Overcome.”

Lewis uses photography and various projection screens and panels, as well as sound effects, to evoke indoor and outdoor settings—including thunderstorms, a campfire in the woods, a river, and an automobile ride. This approach is very effective, and it creates some humorous moments as well.

A unique aspect of this show is the audience reaction to specific memories from the film version. They scream with delight when Johnny triumphantly returns after being fired and delivers the line, “Nobody puts Baby in a corner!” They cheer supportively when Emily Rice, as Baby’s sister Lisa, sings and mimes an off-key, comically bad rendition of the “Hula” for the guest talent show. And, of course, they bring the house down when Baby finally does the lift correctly in the show-stopping finale.

 Samuel Pergande (Johnny) and Jenny Winton (Penny). Photo by Matthew Murphy.
Samuel Pergande (Johnny) and Jenny Winton (Penny). Photo by Matthew Murphy.

Notwithstanding the powerful script, the unforgettable music, and the incredible performers, the true star of the show is the dancing itself. Kudos to Director James Powell and Choreographer Michele Lynch, as well as to Kate Champion who did the original choreography!

With every lift and turn and dip and kick, Dirty Dancing demonstrates what Broadway dancing is all about. Even the muse Terpsichore would approve of this transcendent dance experience.

Running Time: About two hours and 15 minutes, with one 20-minute intermission.

Dirty Dancing plays through September 14, 2014 at The National Theatre – 1321 Pennsylvania Ave. NW in Washington, DC.  For tickets, call (800) 514-3849 or purchase them online or by visiting the National Theatre Box Office.

LINK

Dirty Dancing On Tour website.

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Paul M. Bessel and Barbara Braswell
The most important thing about Paul M. Bessel is that on January 1, 2011, he married the most wonderful woman in the world, who helped him expand his enjoyment of theater. (The first show he remembers was Fiorello! when he was ten, wearing his first suit.) He and his wife now attend as many musicals, history seminars, and concerts as possible, sometimes as many as 4 or 5 a week, enjoying retirement and the joys of finding love late in life, and going on unconventionally romantic dates such as exhibits of mummies and lectures on parliamentary procedure. They live in Leisure World of Maryland and in addition to going to theaters as often as they can they are active together in community and local political organizations. Barbara Braswell grew up in Newport RI, where Jackie Kennedy once bought her an ice cream cone. She has been interested in theatre her whole life. While pursuing a 33-year career with the U.S. Department of Transportation — helping states build highways, including H-3 in Hawaii, where Barbara helped arrange for a shaman to bless the highway — she attended as many shows as possible on her own, with her late mother, and now with her husband. Now retired, she devotes a great deal of time to theatre, community and local political meetings, and having as much fun as possible.