Review: SHN’s ‘Dirty Dancing’ is harmless, campy fun

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Christopher Tierney (Johnny), Rachel Boone (Baby) and Jenny Winton (Penny) are featured in the North American tour of “Dirty Dancing.” (Photo by Matthew Murphy)

So I just gotta say, when it comes to the 1987 movie “Dirty Dancing,” yours truly has never been a fan.

Now my wife on the other hand has had a love affair, an obsession if you will, about this film since around the 12th of forever.

I think a lot of it has to do with the whole concept of the story. There’s “Baby,” the skinny little teenager who is the apple of her father’s eye, vacationing with her family in the Catskills in the early 1960’s, where she comes across the absurdly hot Johnny Castle, a bad boy who dances and moves as if he has an illustrious history of making all kinds of love.

There is a certain fantasy about the film – summer romance, forbidden love, and the one thing I do love about the film, the fantastic soundtrack, minus the banality of “Hungry Eyes.”

The newest production of “Dirty Dancing” that is currently running at San Francisco’s Golden Gate Theatre has a lot going for it, a mostly solid transition from screen to stage, led by James Powell’s even-handed direction. It is greatly assisted by some fantastic dancing, lead by heartthrob Christopher Tierney, who certainly channels that inner-Patrick Swayze magnetism at the height of Swayze’s powers. Then there’s the gentle Baby, played with an effectively smooth range of character by Rachel Boone. Together, they do a lot of very nice things that certainly wowed and thrilled the predominantly female audience that came with their own set of hungry eyes. These ladies certainly let their passions fly when a certain line about a certain small creature in a certain part of a room was unleashed towards the end of the show. It’s a good thing my wife spared me her own blood-curdling, gleeful screams.

Okay, that’s a lie. She screamed like a banshee, who am I kidding?

The production serves two distinct audiences – those who absolutely love the film, and those who loathe it. It’s a fun and campy piece of American pop culture, with the original source material spinning off plenty of concerts, films and the current national tour that has played prior in London and Australia since 2004. Those who were not fans of the movie can certainly find plenty about the production to enjoy, and those who were certainly connect to the familiarity of each moment the play moves through space.

The one thing that works so well is its inventiveness, especially a brilliant segment with the projection screens that channel a few of the film’s more iconic moments, namely the lifts that take place in a field and the lake. Jon Driscoll’s video and projection design does a huge service to help connect the two mediums of film and theatre, giving those who know the film so well an opportunity to relive their favorite moments in a much different way. Overall, this is a technically solid show.

Another hallmark of the show is in the title – the dancing, with the cast beautifully executing Michele Lynch’s tight choreography, based on the original choreography by Kate Champion. There are numbers like “Love Man,” and “Do You Love Me,” songs that were part of the moment known by the masses as the “Watermelon scene.” These have a very nice blend of sultry and sexy.

Other moments by the supporting characters hit plenty of correct notes, and some wrong notes on purpose. Adrienne Walker and Doug Carpenter were wonderful in their handling of some featured vocals, with a stunning rendition of the Five Satins hit “In the Still of the Night.” Alex Scolari is a funny Lisa Houseman, Baby’s sister, with her wonderfully horrid tribute to Americana. And native San Franciscan Jenny Winton offered up a delicious portrayal of embattled Penny Johnson, with legs that go for days, legs that move with a visceral grace all throughout the stage.

The dialogue seemed to go out of its way to be purposely cheesy, and it’s a bit confounding as to why certain choices were made, undercutting the efforts of the actors in various moments. When Baby gives Johnny the pep talk about how people are gonna try to keep them down, that was some solid unintentional comedy. A big part is simply the style of the story. It’s set in a different era, with the dialogue reflecting that, even if it sometimes misses its intended target.

Even though “Dirty Dancing” is not exactly high art, the show knows what it is – a harmless piece of fluffy entertainment that brings joy to those who grew up watching the movie over and over again. And even though I never was one of those, I admit, I found the show quite enjoyable. Hell, it may be even be fun to try out that damn lift.


Well, ok, maybe not.

WHAT TO KNOW IF YOU GO

SHNSF presents “Dirty Dancing”
Written by Eleanor Bergstein
Originally choreographed by Kate Champion
Choreographed by Michele Lynch
The Word: A campy yet fun adaptation of the popular film
Stars: 4 out of 5
Running Time: 2 hours, 30 minutes, with one 15-minute intermission
Through March 20th
The Golden Gate Theatre
1 Taylor Street, San Francisco, CA
Tickets range from $45 – $212
For tickets, call (888) 746-1799 or visit www.shnsf.com

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