One of the most successful independent films of all time has been brought to life through the magic of musical theater and it’s here in Detroit through November 1. Scholars may not pour over “Dirty Dancing” frame by frame in prestigious film schools, but it is one of those hugely popular feel-good movies that people watch over and over again. Maybe they relate to the heroine, Baby, as she struggles to be true to herself, to true love, and to her belief in doing the right thing. Maybe people relate to working-class dance instructor Johnny as he tries to follow his own code while earning a living in a resort where even the summer wait staff are entitled Harvard students. Or maybe the legion of “Dirty Dancing” fans just like watching attractive people dance as if it’s the only thing in the world that matters. And either way, this much is true – the thrill is all amplified when it’s live and happening right in front of your eyes.
This is the realization that drove Eleanor Bergstein, screenwriter of the film “Dirty Dancing,” to develop the book for the live musical that’s now playing at the Fisher Theatre as part of the Broadway in Detroit series. And if we can judge by the standing-ovation opening-night crowd, it was a smart move.
“Dirty Dancing – The Classic Story On Stage” includes everything that makes the film so popular, and builds on that platform to add scenes that offer context to the narrative. It’s still set in 1963, the summer before JFK’s assassination, at a resort in the Catskills. At a late-night bonfire, we learn that some of the more socially aware wait staff are planning to go south as Freedom Riders in support of Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights movement. People discuss current events, the implications of the October Missile Crisis, and are optimistic about changing the world. And 17-year old Baby is eager to start college, learn what she can about marginalized cultures, and then join the Peace Corp.
But this is still a love story about dancing, and it works on stage because the cast makes the magic happen. Christopher Tierney, as Johnny, is a heart-throb in the best sense and an amazing dancer. Gillian Abbot, as Baby, pulls off that tricky transformation from awkward teen to the emerging woman whom, as Johnny assures us, nobody should put in a corner. Jenny Winton, as Johnny’s dance partner Penny, makes all the crazy gymnastic moves look easy – she’s the real deal. Vocals for the big number – “(I’ve Had) the Time of My Life” – are delivered with power and range by featured company members Doug Carpenter (Billy) and Jennlee Shallow (Elizabeth). Even Baby’s parents are played with likable sympathy and liberal spunk by Mark Elliot Wilson and Margo White. And Alex Scolari, as Baby’s lovely but clueless big sister Lisa, proves her comedic chops in a Hula number she performs for the resort talent show. The ensemble is all top-drawer talent and sometimes the challenge is just to figure out who to watch; there are no wrong choices.
In addition to new bits of storyline, there are classic songs that Bergstein really wanted to use in the film but couldn’t get legal rights to. These are added to the stage show, including the Drifters’ “Save the Last Dance for Me,” and Marvin Gaye’s, “Stubborn kind of Fellow.” Of course, more music means more dancing, and that’s always a good thing. Director James Powell finds the right balance of levity and love, and sets the stage for the dazzling choreography by Michele Lynch, which is based on the original choreography by Kate Champion.
The scenic design (Stephen Brimson Lewis) relies to a great extent on LED/video projection (Jon Driscoll) and this is used in a whimsical way to frame up the action and even to get its own laugh lines. (Watch for Johnny and Baby to practice their lifts in “the lake” – a video projection trick in which the actors pop up as if they’re in the water. It’s good physical humor.)
If you loved the film, or if you’re simply up for some hot dance numbers, get yourself to the Fisher Theatre. “Dirty Dancing – The Classic Story On Stage” runs through November 1 with shows Tuesday through Saturday evening at 8 p.m., Sunday evenings at 7:30 p.m., plus Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2 p.m. The evening show on Sunday October 25 is a special open-captioned performance. Tickets for “Dirty Dancing – The Classic Story On Stage” range from $39 – $95 and are available at all Ticketmaster locations, by phone at 1-800-982-2787, online at the Broadway in Detroit website and at the Fisher Theatre box office. The theatre is located at 3011 W. Grand Blvd. in Detroit.