Dirty Dancing at the Boch Center (3.5 stars)

Dirty Dancing, by Eleanor Bergstein, Set Designer Mikiko Suzuki MacAdams, Lighting Designer Ken Billington, Costume Designer Jennifer Irwin, Sound Designer Leon Rotheberg, Hair Designer Bernie Ardia, Associate Costume Designer Anna Stainback, Ballroom & Latin Choreographer Craig Wilson, Casting by Stewart/Whitley, Associate Director Ilana Ransom Toeplitz, Associate Choreographer Tobin del Cuore, Music Directors Jonathan Marro and John Mezzio, with Music Supervisor and Orchestrations by Conrad Helfrich, Choreographer Michele Lynch, Original Choreography by Kate Champion, and Director Sarna Lapine, runs June 13-17, 2018 at the Boch Center in Boston, Massachusetts.

Perhaps more than it is a romance, Dirty Dancing is a coming of age story and a rebellion against class structure. (The cast has diversity, but the main class struggle is white-on-white.) It’s set in a summer resort in 1963, when a rich teenager encounters the staff, including dance instructors, who have much bigger problems of poverty and acceptance. Along the way there is dancing, comedy, romance, and heartbreak. Will it end like Romeo and Juliet, another cross-barriers love story? Of course the stage production is based on the popular 1987 film Dirty Dancing starring Patrick Swayze, which was remade in 2017.

I’d seen the original movie, but didn’t remember anything about it. In a way, that was good, because a stage show should carry itself to newcomers. But many in the audience loved the film so much that this warmth carried into the production, which in a way is a tribute to the movie, and making me feel like a curmudgeon to find any flaw. I recently reviewed Strictly Ballroom in London, which is also a romance about dancers fighting the system, so it was interesting to compare them.

Dirty Dancing comes with impressive staging, by set designer Mikiko Suzuki MacAdams. Stagehands dress up in costume, by costume designers Jennifer Irwin and Anna Stainback, to perform set changes! For example, to set up props and scenery for a golf course, stagehands dressed as golfers bring equipment and flags out to the stage. Since the camp features a lake overlook, every scene just needs different windowing framing the water view, with the new scene’s framing slid in smoothly while the previous scene is still ending. Most impressive was the campfire, whose smoke wavered realistically.

Kudos to Owen Russell for his hilarious portrayal of Neil Kellerman, the grandson due to inherit the camp someday. His comic dancing was the best of the show, with his hilarious overstepping while oblivious to his partners. Unfortunately, since the protagonists are poor, setting rich son Neil up as comic relief deflated the villainous class warfare. Good guys should be good, and bad guys need to be bad. (Speaking of which, we learn than an impoverished dancer has a backup job waiting for him, and a key turning point is when he’s ordered by management to dance the pachanga instead of the mambo. The stakes aren’t that high. Who cares what dance he dances?) Kudos to the production for giving his character some depth, and Neil has his own story arc involving Martin Luther King, but I never took him seriously enough to get emotionally involved with it.

Speaking of which, although the stars of the show, Baby Houseman (Kaleigh Courts) and Johnny Castle (Aaron Patrick Craven), turn out to be good-hearted, they begin the show without much reason for the audience to root for them. Baby is a rich girl who doesn’t seem to know what she wants. Even when she wants to help, it’s as though she isn’t captain of her own choices, a quality that I’d find likable. Johnny arrogantly condescends. Even when Johnny is helping his friend, he’s such a tough guy that he doesn’t express warm empathy, a quality that I would find likable. It took me some time to get emotionally invested in these characters.

In Strictly Ballroom, the similar musical that I mentioned, there are some awkward moments as the dancers are learning their routines, but during this time, the two main characters are bonding and falling in love. And around such awkward dancing are some fantastic dance numbers! Unfortunately, instead of growing as people, Baby and Johnny continue to be all innocence and all arrogance through an awkward dance montage that lasts too long, and doesn’t show a building chemistry between them. In a show called Dirty Dancing, we should have seen much more excellent dancing. The Sheldrake would have been a great place for that. There is one stage fight that fails to impress.

I’m sorry to add that the show does not open with a strong musical number, and contains many songs that flop. Some of the dancing and singing is meant to convey how stifling and lame the summer camp is… but when you include too much of that in your show, it makes the show lame as well. Did we need to hear Blow the Man Down, Lisa’s Hula, the Pirate King, and other songs from the amateur talent show? I understand the plot purpose of Kellerman’s Anthem, but it’s just not an interesting number. The show also contains “dad” jokes whose purpose to convey lameness. They succeed… I found them lame, filler.

Speaking of filler, the original movie featured the hit song “Yes” by Merry Clayton, but in the stage show it was added in a way that didn’t make sense to me. The song, Still of the Night, sung by Nickolaus Colon (as Billy) while beautiful, capped off a story arc that I didn’t even know existed, with a woman (Erica Philpot) who sings but I don’t believe is actually given any lines to speak. Why does she sing We Shall Overcome for thirty seconds? It seemed unattached to the rest of the plot.

Kaleigh Courts plays Baby with an authentic innocence that is played up for comedy at the start, but then remains too innocent. By the time you-know-what happens, not to spoil anything, she does not seem to have progressed away from innocence and towards confidence in her character arc. Thus I wonder whether she’s being taken advantage of, or giving into a nurse complex more than love. Johnny starts an unnecessary fight, by which I mean he is not in physical danger, which may have worked in a 1980s film, but I hope as a society we are past the violence-is-sexy thing. Violent men are bad these days.

Also, do we need a conversation about safe sex? And, were there really summer camps, even in the 1960s, whose secret purpose was for the staff to be male (and female?) sexual companions for the guests? Is that how cruise ships work? I’ve never been on a cruise ship.

Now I want to get on a cruise ship.

Let me end on an upbeat note. I loved the closing number, which sent thrills through my body. I took two friends with me to the show: one hated it, I was in the middle, and one friend loved it, saying that you never forget your first innocent romance, and that she’s felt just like Baby at times in her life.

Maybe I’m just missing the nuances of Dirty Dancing. Perhaps it’s a Streetcar Named Desire type of character study with people in so much pain that they can’t make smart choices for themselves. During the play, one character actually tells Johnny that he’s not the world’s best dancer but only “okay”. So perhaps the show is trying to keep grounded by not having the protagonists unrealistically transform (as they do in Strictly Ballroom) into the world’s best dancers. I don’t know. Perhaps by wanting great dancing, music, and love, I am missing the depth and originality of a play that avoids a vanilla, Hollywood storyline.

So no doubt this is a 5-star show to many. Perhaps as an older white guy, I’m simply not into the romance genre (though I did give Simply Ballroom 4.5 stars). Only 3.5 stars this time for Dirty Dancing, but you don’t need me to tell you that if you loved the film, you will love this show.

This show is still in town through Sunday! See http://www.bochcenter.org/buy/show-listing/dirty-dancing.