The Washington Post

Theater review: ‘Dirty Dancing — the Classic Story on Stage’ at National Theatre

Jillian Mueller as Baby and Samuel Pergande as Johnny in "Dirty Dancing - The Classic Story On Stage" at National Theatre. (Matthew Murphy)

Bum . . . ba-bum / bum . . . ba-bum / bum . . . ba-bum . . .

The electric beat kicks in and the audience whoops as three silhouetted couples dip and grind to “This Magic Moment” behind a scrim splashed with a “Dirty Dancing” graphic in hot pink.

They whooped at the press opening of “Dirty Dancing — the Classic Story On Stage” on Tuesday, and it’s likely that audiences will do the same every night at the National Theatre through Sept. 14.

So, is this highly commercial, “live” re-creation of a beloved film an example of great and artful theatrical innovation? Nope, it is not. But is it really fun? Yup.

A word-for-word, dance-for-dance, scene-for-scene adaptation of the 1987 movie — a surprise summer hit in its day and a pop culture icon ever since — the stage show delivers what its expanded title promises. Eleanor Bergstein has cloned her original screenplay, with a few additions. Johnny and Baby even rehearse on a log and in a river, thanks to video projections and clever stagecraft.

Bergstein launched the stage version in Australia 10 years ago. It has been mounted in Toronto and other North American cities, and in London and Europe. The production at the National is part of a new 30-city tour. But, no, “Dirty Dancing” has not yet gone to Broadway.

The characters talk a bit more about civil rights, Vietnam, and class conflict onstage. Musically, choruses of “We Shall Overcome” and “This Land Is Your Land” emphasize, somewhat awkwardly, growing political and social unrest.

An energy-to-burn cast, led by the striking and balletic Samuel Pergande as dance instructor Johnny Castle and winsome Jillian Mueller as hotel guest Frances “Baby” Houseman, carries an audience along with ease. James Powell has directed the quick scenes with the precision of a traffic cop. The full-skirted sundresses by Jennifer Irwin add much to the nostalgia — as do the awful sports jackets. The band, set above the stage and led by Alan Plado, maintains rhythm and polish throughout.

You know the story: The Houseman family arrives for three weeks of fun in the Catskills at Kellerman’s resort. The vacation forever changes their brainy 17-year-old daughter, Frances, nicknamed Baby. Her doting dad, Jake (Mark Elliot Wilson), is a doctor; his wife, Marjorie (Caralyn Kozlowski), the classic helpmate (who gets some actual lines in the stage version); their older daughter, Lisa (Emily Rice), a boy-crazy clotheshorse.

Baby, who is headed for Mount Holyoke in the fall, cares about social issues. But another passion awakes in her at the sight of Johnny Castle, tangoing with his dance partner, Penny (nimble Jenny Winton). Baby feels the sexual sizzle even more at a staff party, watching how Johnny and the others move. When Penny learns she’s pregnant by the swinish college-boy/waiter Robbie (Sam Edgerly), Baby jumps at the chance to learn Penny’s part for a steamy number with Johnny.

All these crises whiz by amid the strains of, among others, “The Time of My Life,” “Do You Love Me?,” “Cry to Me,” and the comical “Lisa’s Hula” for the hotel talent show. Audiences hear some master recordings from the film’s soundtrack, and other numbers performed live. A couple of terrific singers shine: Doug Carpenter, who plays Johnny’s cousin Billy Kostecki, belts a gorgeous “In the Still of the Night,” and Jennlee Shallow movingly solos on “You Don’t Own Me” and “We Shall Overcome.”

A few weaker links in the acting department dampen the fizz at times, but most such moments go by too fast to cause damage. One does wish, however, that Wilson projected more easy paternal warmth as Jake.

Other things are more important, though, such as the fact that Mueller is petite, a la Jennifer Grey opposite Patrick Swayze in the film. She can gaze longingly up at Pergande’s Johnny as they dance and be lifted skyward by him as if weightless. That is soooo important.


Horwitz is a freelance writer.

Dirty Dancing — the Classic Story on Stage

By Eleanor Bergstein. Directed by James Powell. Choreography, Michele Lynch; original choreography, Kate Champion; ballroom and Latin choreography, Craig Wilson; set design, Stephen Brimson Lewis; lighting, Tim Mitchell; sound, Bobby Aitken; projections, Jon Driscoll; hair, Bernie Ardia; music direction, Alan Plado. With Jerome Harmann-Hardeman, Gary Lynch, John Antony, Rachel Boone, Amanda Brantley, Jon Drake, Rashaan James II, Joshua Keith, Kevin Munhall, Phoebe Pearl, Virginia Preston and Michael Thomas Pugliese. Through Sept. 14 at the National Theatre, 1321 Pennsylvania Ave. NW. 202-628-6161. Visit $48-$153. About 2 hours, 15 minutes, including intermission.



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