clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Theater review: 1987 hit film 'Dirty Dancing' comes to life at Eccles Theater despite a few missteps

“DIRTY DANCING,” national tour, through June 25, Eccles Theater, 131 S. Main (801-355-2787 or artsaltlake.org); running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes (one intermission)

It’s a bit of a risk any time creators adapt a well-loved original work. Whether the adaptation is book to movie, musical to movie or movie to stage, it can be a great success … or not.

The current national tour of “Dirty Dancing” is a bit of both. This is the musical adaptation of the 1987 megahit movie starring Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey that was one of the most successful independent films of all time, according to the Los Angeles Times. In a wise move, Eleanor Bergstein, who wrote the screenplay, also wrote this stage adaptation.

The plot of this stage reworking is very similar to the movie. Bergstein has added a subplot with the Kellerman nephew going off to be a Freedom Rider and a tiff between Baby and Johnny Castle over civil rights, which frankly gets in the way of the love story, which is what “Dirty Dancing” is: a coming-of-age love story. The added subplot feels like a forced effort to make the well-known, much-loved tale more relevant.

Otherwise, the plot is the same and much of the spoken dialogue is verbatim to the film. There are plenty of additional similarities — costuming and Baby’s hair are familiar (thank you Jennifer Irwin, costume design, and Bernie Ardia, hair) and a large LED screen backdrop shows many of the same scene-setters as in the movie. The LED screen works really well for most scenes. But in the much-loved sequence when Johnny takes Baby out into nature to learn how to do the lift, the LED isn’t as effective (however, that may also depend on where your seat is.)

If you’re a “Dirty Dancing” enthusiast, you’ll find yourself yearning for Swayze and Grey in the original, frothier version. Christopher Tierney and Bronwyn Reed do a pretty good job of capturing the essence of the classic — which would be a difficult task — but at times it feels more like they’re doing an impersonation rather than an original performance (which might beg the question: Is that what audiences really want anyway?) And they lack a bit of that raw passion and chemistry we see in the film. But they do dance well together.

Others in the cast would be better off trying to emulate their predecessors, like the sister played by Alyssa Brizzi, whose performance is much more a caricature than genuine, and Matt Surges as Neil Kellerman seems to be trying hard not to do it the same as the movie and in doing so, falls flat.

In a wise move, the beloved soundtrack is sung by an onstage band. Jordan Edwin Andre and Chante Carmel do a great job. Andre plays Johnny’s cousin, Billy, and they’ve created a role for Carmel, who works at Kellerman’s Resort. The music, arranged by Conrad Helfrich, fits seamlessly with the production, which can be a challenge.

The true stand-out is the dancing with choreography by Michele Lynch, based on the original dance steps by Kate Champion. It doesn’t sizzle quite as much as it does in the movie, but it’s still fun to watch. Jennifer Mealani Jones as Penny (Johnny’s original partner) is a scene-stealer and joy to watch.

All in all, “Dirty Dancing” is a pretty fun nostalgic night out and will likely have you digging out your soundtrack.

Content advisory:"Dirty Dancing" includes instances of sexuality, drinking, implied abortion, adult topics and, of course … dirty dancing.

Erica Hansen was the theater editor at the Deseret News for more than three years. An area performer, she was also the original host of the radio program "Showtune Saturday Night."