It’s opening night for Dirty Dancing: The Classic Story on Stage and Ruth Eckerd Hall’s 2,000+ seats are packed with quite the energetic bunch. On the way to my seat, several people in my row cheers me with their Solo cups and exclaim “Happy Cinco de Mayo!” Never before have I encountered such an animated audience; then again, never before have I attended a show like Dirty Dancing onstage. Adapted for the theatre by Eleanor Bergstein (who also authored the 1987 pop culture classic film), Dirty Dancing: The Classic Story on Stage doesn’t miss a beat.
The first notes of The Drifters’ timeless hit “This Magic Moment” float across stage as the curtains are drawn. Sultry silhouettes of lithe couples dancing seductively behind a screen are revealed as Baby (Jillian Mueller) watches eagerly from her frilly white bed. Immediately, members of the audience begin to sing along with the orchestra, who is performing from a second-story balcony constructed onstage. The energy is palpable as we are all taken back to the summer of 1963, when learning the pachanga was considered risqué and the ideal vacation destination was at Kellerman’s family resort.
Much to my delight, Bergstein has kept her stage adaptation authentic: Not a single song from the film is skipped. In fact, two more songs Bergstein was unable to obtain for the film were actually added into the production, in the places originally intended. The dancing is just as enticing now as it was in 1987, and the actors are just as captivating. Especially charming is Christopher Tierney, who plays Johnny Castle. Tierney has a look reminiscent of 1980s Patrick Swayze, and he’s got the moves to match: I watch several pairs of eyes light up with the sparkle only a heartthrob can induce as Tierney mambos his way across stage. By now, half of the audience is swaying in their seats (present company included) and the roar of applause grows louder between each number.
The set design is, in a word, incredible. Bright, colorful lights switch seamlessly between each scene change, one moment displaying the grassy meadow where Johnny begins to teach Baby how to do the infamous “Lift;” the next moment surrounding them in wavy waters where they finally succeed in landing the difficult dance move. One of the only props used is the bed, introduced in the first scene of the first act and brought back throughout the duration of the play. One of my favorite moments of the show comes when Johnny and Baby at last go to bed together: The sexual act is represented through various intimate dance moves as blue liquid lights wash over their bodies. The scene is at once romantic, sexy and poignant and my hand goes to my chest as the bed is whisked away while the lights swirl their way across the audience. Swoon.
One of the only digressions from the Dirty Dancing film in tonight’s stage production is Bergstein’s choice to write in more civil rights dialogue and political commentary. Bergstein takes the single Freedom Riders line from the beginning of the film and incorporates it into a larger part of the story onstage, including a heated conversation between Baby and Johnny on the importance of voting, being an active citizen and engaging in the fight for civil rights. This feels especially significant, as it is impossible not to notice the lack of diversity in the film that is now being mirrored onstage.
The cast dances swiftly from “Do You Love Me?” to “Penny’s Waltz,” from “Hey, Baby!” to “Save the Last Dance for Me.” Alyssa Brizzi, playing Baby’s older sister Lisa, is successful in being even more obnoxious in “Lisa’s Hula” than the film’s Jane Brucker — a feat I would have deemed impossible, were I not witnessing it with my own eyes and ears.
From beginning to end, Dirty Dancing: The Classic Story on Stage is full of magic moments, and has audience members singing along and dancing in their seats for the entirety of the show. Classic lines like “Nobody puts Baby in a corner” and “I carried a watermelon?!” are recited in unison with the actors onstage, and the lively dance numbers make it difficult to remain in our seats.
When “(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life” begins to play in the final scene, my pulse quickens. Despite knowing the outcome, the audience holds our collective breath for the grand finale as Baby and Johnny do the infamous “Lift,” and applaud when it is a success. I look around the theatre at the audience applauding: Many are standing, some are dancing; there are even tears of nostalgia from others.
All-in-all, Dirty Dancing: The Classic Story on Stage more than lives up to its hype. If, like me, you have lost count of how many times you’ve watched the unforgettable film over the years, this show is an absolute must-see. Do yourself a favor and attend while you can — I promise you’ll have the time of your life.