Straight outa the Catskills

  • by Richard Dodds
  • Tuesday March 8, 2016
Share this Post:
Christopher Tierney and Jenny Winton try to teach Rachel<br>Boone the mambo in a scene from the stage version of <i>Dirty Dancing</i><br> now at the Golden Gate Theatre. Photo: Matthew<br>Murphy
Christopher Tierney and Jenny Winton try to teach Rachel
Boone the mambo in a scene from the stage version of Dirty Dancing
now at the Golden Gate Theatre. Photo: Matthew
Murphy

Papa loves mambo. Mama loves mambo. Baby loves " well, it isn't the mambo.

If you've seen Dirty Dancing, you know that the 16-year-old girl whose family calls her Baby is beginning to take baby steps to the wrong side of the tracks. That is, before she starts taking big-girl steps. (Never mind that her stepping-out partner would be guilty of statutory rape under New York law in 1963.)

A freeze-dried stage replica of the 1987 movie Dirty Dancing is now at the Golden Gate Theatre, and it is, oddly, not really a musical version of the movie at all. No songs have been assigned to the characters, many are old recordings played as incidental accompaniment, and the occasional live sounds emanate from what believably could be the house band at a summer resort in the Catskills. One song that absolutely, positively must be performed live " "(I've Had) the Time of My Life" " is sung by two nameless characters at microphones on either side of the stage. Another is "We Shall Overcome." (Don't ask.)

The stage show was adapted by Eleanor Bergstein from her screenplay, and it is faithful to a fault. Dialogue that may have seemed like commonplace chatter in a two-shot on screen becomes hokum when it must be brayed to the back rows of the theater. But most of us aren't there for the talk. It's the pubescent fantasy of a plainish-Jane (Rachel Boone) who scores with the resort's eye-candy dancer for hire, and, since "dancing" is in the title, there are expectations of hire-powered routines to blow the roof off the theater.

But more often than not, the recurring dance numbers are mambo lessons that are one of the resort's activities. The dancers are meant to be comically awkward, but then they must transform into the hot and sultry dirty dancers at a staff-only gathering that Baby infiltrates. Other than Christopher Tierney as Johnny Castle, the Patrick Swayze role, and Jenny Winton as his slinky dance partner, the dancers don't seem to be all that good. It's hard to tell, for they are bathed in murky red lighting and perform in front of a large video screen on which a montage of some other dancers performing unrelated dance steps towers over them. One might even think it's a purposeful distraction.

The Classic Story on Stage, as it is subtitled, was born in Australia in 2004, then moved to London in 2006, where it ran for five years. A tour of North America then began, with Broadway as its expected destination, but that has yet to materialize. That's likely a smart move, for the show has been doing good business on the road, and the chances of a tepid Broadway response could hurt the brand.

Nostalgic goodwill, not a response that Broadway critics are known for, is what keeps the touring show afloat. The performances range from reasonable to ridiculous, James Powell's direction is dutiful, and Michele Lynch's choreography unfocused. The sets mainly consist of tables and chairs and door frames around which scenery is projected. But score one for video designer Jon Driscoll, who at least has a sense of humor about the overreliance on video scenery. When Johnny and Baby head into a lake to practice the big lift for an upcoming dance showcase, they somehow can dunk into the projected water and reappear pushing back their supposedly wet hair.

And then there's the actual big lift at the dance performance, a thrilling moment in the movie in which editing made it look longer and higher than it could actually be. But there's no trickery on stage, and the big lift is woefully unclimactic. Still the audience cheers, with its ability to project its own VHS memories on what is actually happening on the stage.

 

Dirty Dancing will run at the Golden Gate Theatre through March 30. Tickets are $45-$212. Call (888) 746-1799 or go to shnsf.com.