In the current theater culture, in which multiple films are adapted for the stage every year whether they deserve to be or not, there are bound to be a few that just don’t measure up. Telling a story onstage is much different than telling a story on film, and if you don’t understand the nuances of the theater, you’ll wind up with a mess of a production.
I can’t say that Dirty Dancing, presented by Dallas Summer Musicals at the Music Hall at Fair Park through July 5, is a complete mess, but it seems to exist for one reason and one reason only: to serve as nostalgia for fans of the movie. There isn’t necessarily anything wrong with that, but anyone hoping to get an actual theatrical experience will be disappointed.
The particulars of the story remain the same: Frances, aka Baby (Gillian Abbott), goes with her family for a summer vacation to Kellerman’s Resort in upstate New York. When the provided entertainment and company prove less than stimulating, she finds excitement in the form of Johnny Castle (Samuel Pergande), a dance instructor at the resort.
Soon Baby is caught up in not only the enthralling nature of Johnny, but also the lives of his fellow performers and resort workers, giving her life a lot more drama than she had previously experienced.
The biggest reason it’s difficult to call the production “theater” is because it’s not actually a musical. Oh sure, there’s plenty of music, but the vast majority of it is either instrumental backing music or songs sung to the characters instead of by the characters. They do find a couple of interesting ways to get around the impediment of the source material not being a musical, especially in the second act, but not enough to save the production.
Consequently, the entire show has a curious lack of energy. With the characters not really involved with the music being played, save for the occasional dance scene, they’re really just there to ensure the story moves from one scene to the next. And I mean “scene” in the loosest terms, as they’re mostly just vignettes — some lasting no more than a few seconds — designed to hit the high points of the movie that fans will remember.
This hopscotch style of storytelling often leads to the characters’ looking somewhat silly, as they sometimes literally circle the stage in order to allow time for new sets and scenery to be put into place. The set design is actually quite effective, with projected imagery and other elements doing yeoman’s work at setting the tone. However, they’re kind of undercut by the awkwardness of actors’ biding their time before launching into the next vignette.
The brevity of the scenes doesn’t do the actors any favors, either, as their dialogue comes off as cheesy at best. The story isn’t the most dramatic one to begin with, but not allowing the actors to have any kind of extended conversations does nothing to increase their appeal.
Nobody comes off worse than Pergande because of this decision. Even though he and Abbott probably have the most lines, he is given no opportunity to adjust his monotone delivery, making him the embodiment of the unintelligent hunk.
Of course, none of the above will matter in the slightest for those who just want to relive the fun of the movie. When the production crescendos with “(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life” — sung expertly by ensemble members Jennlee Shallow and Doug Carpenter, by the way — the moment is inescapably buoyant.
It doesn’t quite make up for the production’s failures, but at least it leaves you with a smile on your face.
Dirty Dancing runs at the Music Hall at Fair Park through July 5 and at Bass Performance Hall in Fort Worth July 7-17.