October 22, 2008

Dirty Dancing in Chicago

I couldn't be in Chicago and not see the pre-Broadway, U.S. premiere stage adaptation of Dirty Dancing. It was incomprehensible. Besides, having that ticket in my purse was the only thing that made this Chicago trip worthwhile, as I've had to suffer through another work-related conference surrounded by parents.

Some might say I only came to Chicago for Dirty Dancing.

I'd heard horrible things about it. It was critically panned on the West End but an audience favorite, and even Michelle's parents were disappointed with it. But I'm a sucker for anything related to the film - t-shirts, keychains, talking pens, calendars - and I figured it had to be better than the TV special I watched as part of the bonus features of the anniversary DVD.

Besides, I was used to sharing my love for Dirty Dancing with no one. And at least I knew tonight, I would be alone in a crowd (unlike when I was alone in an empty Ziegfeld Theater for a screening of it).

The stage production is basically the movie. There are lots of soundtrack songs played in their original form in the background, with the addition of some other 1960s period hits. Occasionally some of the cast members sing the songs instead, but kind of in the background too, standing off to the side or on an upper platform, trading the leads often enough that it forms somewhat of a Greek chorus. I guess that might seem strange to some (including this Chicago Tribune writer), but come on, let's be honest. Nobody wants to see Johnny Castle sing.

And boy can this Johnny dance. His portrayer, Josef Brown, has been with the production since his native Australia and although he has a really strange forced American accent and isn't the greatest actor (neither was Patrick Swayze really), the choreography slides off his chiseled body to slither around the stage, leap in the air and crouch to the earth. This production's Baby is also a dead-ringer for Jennifer Grey, making you forget sometimes you're not watching the movie.

So why not just stay home and watch the movie? Surely it must be showing on the We network or VH1's "Movies That Rock."

I guess there's just something about the live experience, the disco balls that start spinning in the house during the finale, Johnny busting into "Kellerman's Anthem" as he walks through the audience down the aisle and hops up onto the stage from the front. And when they finally do the lift, that silly f-ing lift, it just takes your breath away. Johnny spins her around 360 degrees for the whole audience to see, so nobody can miss it.

There are some unnecessary musical numbers added to the show, mostly for expository purposes I think, and there's been some dialogue added to fill the gaps that the movie leaves to your imagination. Those parts are mostly just annoying, as is the civil rights subplot which I think is supposed to give the story more meaning but actually just makes it more trite. But overall, it's like you can almost reach out and touch the movie, and although it looks and sounds a little different, if you've seen the movie as many times as I have, it just never gets old. You find yourself wishing the stage adaptation was more like the movie. Exactly like it.

(The casting of John Bolger as the father was an odd one, but since I am a fan from the 80s when he briefly portrayed Phillip Spaulding on Guiding Light, it was thrilling to see him perform something besides the TV commercials I occasionally spot him in. After all, he is the great-nephew of Ray Bolger, the Scarecrow from The Wizard of Oz!)

This stage production is supposed to be coming to Broadway, but the theater tonight wasn't that full so I wonder if it will make it. Will I see it again if it hits New York? Maybe, if only to avoid the regret of not going.

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