The Durham Performing Arts Center audience decided by unanimous vote on opening night that director James Powell’s Dirty Dancing: The Classic Story on Stage is delightful, delovely, and delicious. In spite of some opening-night sound problems and a rather stilted performance from Samuel Pergande as Johnny Castle, a role made famous by screen idol Patrick Swayze, the well-loved and timeless story about Baby Houseman’s coming-of-age thrilled the approving crowd at DPAC Tuesday night.
The year is 1963, the place is the Catskill Mountains, and the Houseman family is on vacation. Little does Baby Houseman know that this is the summer when she will transition from the literal baby of the family to Frances, the woman with a political commitment to Civil Rights and international issues such as racism and poverty. At seventeen, Baby has yet to fall in love, doesn’t know how to dance, and is still searching for her own identity. Little does she know that all that she doesn’t know will reveal itself to her during that summer vacation, and she will meet a man who will probably be the one person in her life to teach her that she should never allow anyone to put her in a corner.
From the moment Jillian Mueller as Baby comes onstage, there is a natural propensity to compare her to the performance delivered by Jennifer Grey in the 1987 film version of Dirty Dancing. The visual resemblance is amazing, but what strikes the audience throughout Mueller’s performance is her spot-on take on what a 17-year-old would feel during a family vacation when all she wants to do is to break the rules. She is appropriately clumsy when she needs to be and extraordinarily crystalline when she begins to blossom into the beautiful butterfly that flies into Johnny Castle’s arms in the final scene.
Mueller’s performance is the prow of the ship of actors/dancers that make up this charged and electric show. The dancers steam up the stage in the first scene when “This Magic Moment” brings them all to stage in an introduction to the era, the conflicts, and the situation. They are truly the backdrop for the family, the hotel employees, and the romance in a way that underlines both the heat of the summer and the sizzle of the era.
Charged with “showing the daughters a good time,” the employees/troupe are university students about to find themselves in the same manner as Baby and her sister Lisa (Emily Rice) will. It is the decade of Kennedy and Civil Rights, the Beatles and … dirty dancing.
Baby explores the whole camp, a metaphor for the exploration that she’s also taking of her own identify as the summer progresses. And as she explores, the music underscores her journey. Incredible music. In the first act alone, there are 25 musical numbers, including the iconic “Do You Love Me?” and “Hungry Eyes.”
The play quickly dives into one of the subplots that complicates both the summer and Baby’s relationship with her father: the dancer Penny’s (Jenny Winton) abortion. Winton is both sympathetic and edgy as Penny, and her long legs give her the star power she needs to shine in her role as the professional dancer hired to make sure Kellerman’s resort pleases its summer visitors. Everyone tends to blame bad boy Johnny Castle (Samuel Pergande) for Penny’s pregnancy; but Johnny is more brother and partner to Penny than lover, which becomes instantly clear to Baby.
In this story, one expects chemistry to sizzle between Johnny and Baby; and on Baby’s part, it definitely happens, but Pergande’s Johnny is stiff and stilted. His lines are spat out as if he has memorized them and is delivering them but has no idea what they mean. He lacks the emotion and passion of Patrick Swayze’s Johnny, and it is this reviewer’s hope that the lackluster performance is opening-night jitters, because his role is far too important to be as weak as this version was. Pergande’s dancing and stature are stellar, but his acting needs to be infused with some of the passion this illicit relationship embodies for the DPAC show to be the blockbuster that the 1987 movie was.
However, the surprise of the evening — and the performance that rated the unabashed love and longest applause from the Durham Performing Arts Center patrons — was the top-notch singing delivered by Doug Carpenter and Jennlee Shallow. Swallow as Elizabeth is meant to be a background singer; and as such, she thrills the audiences in the first act. But when Carpenter fills the theater with “In the Still of the Night,” sung with poignancy and a smoothness that puts more well-known singers to shame, he truly steals the show; and the show is in his pocket for the rest of the evening.
For a show as strong as this one to be stolen by a singer who isn’t considered a lead is amazing, but Carpenter does it handily. The DPAC audience must have known that they were watching a star who might soon be a household name.
Throughout the second act, a sound issue plagued the opening-night performance, often visibly throwing off even the more seasoned cast members (i.e., Gary Lynch as Max Kellerman and Jesse Liebman as Neil Kellerman). Samuel Pergande’s microphone seemed to be affected, and the instruments in the band were drowned out by the annoying scratching. However, this problem will probably be nonexistent during subsequent performances.
For a fast-paced, dance-filled, romantic play with the sexy acting and the best music on stage, visit DPAC before Dirty Dancing moves on and graces another stage with moments that mean Baby never will have to sit in another corner.
SECOND OPINION: Sept. 17th Durham, NC Herald-Sun review by Dawn Baumgartner Vaughan: http://www.heraldsun.com/lifestyles/entertainment/x1412772534/REVIEW-Dirty-Dancing-takes-you-back-in-time and Sept. 11th preview by Dawn Baumgartner Vaughan: http://www.heraldsun.com/lifestyles/entertainment/x711467056/-Dirty-Dancing-from-movie-to-stage (Note: You must subscribe to read these articles); Sept. 16th Raleigh, NC Broadwayworld.com Raleigh “BWW Blog” by Jon Drake of the national tour: http://www.broadwayworld.com/article/BWW-Blog-Jon-Drake-of-DIRTY-DANCING-National-Tour-Playing-Mr-Schumacher-20140916 and Sept. 11th interview with Jesse Liebman, conducted by Jeffrey Karasarides: http://www.broadwayworld.com/raleigh/article/BWW-Interviews-Jesse-Liebman-of-DIRTY-DANCING-National-Tour-20140911; Sept. 14th Raleigh, NC News & Observer preview by Roy C. Dicks: http://www.newsobserver.com/2014/09/13/4145011/dirty-dancing-comes-to-dpac.html; Sept. 10th Burlington, NC Teens & Twenties preview by Lincoln Pennington: http://teensandtwenties.com/dirty-dancing-touring-show-hits-n-c-next-week/; and Aug. 26th New York, NY Playbill.com preview by Michael Gioia: http://www.playbill.com/news/article/dirty-dancing-tour-starring-samuel-pergande-and-jillian-mueller-begins-perf. (Note: To read Triangle Arts and Entertainment’s online version of the Sept. 16th Triangle Review preview by Robert W. McDowell, click http://triangleartsandentertainment.org/2014/09/dpac-hopes-triangle-theatergoers-will-have-the-time-of-their-lives-at-dirty-dancing-on-sept-16-21/.)
The Durham Performing Arts Center presents DIRTY DANCING: THE CLASSIC STORY ON STAGE at 7:30 p.m. Sept. 18, 8 p.m. Sept. 19, 2 and 8 p.m. Sept. 20, and 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sept. 21 at DPAC at 123 Vivian St., Durham, North Carolina 27701, in the American Tobacco Historic District.
TICKETS: $46.54-$167.48 (including fees), except http://www.dpacnc.com/events/special_offers.
DPAC Box Office: 919-680-ARTS (2787), firstname.lastname@example.org, or http://www.dpacnc.com/events/how_to_buy_tickets.
Ticketmaster: 800-982-2787 or http://www.ticketmaster.com/venueartist/115558/1196389.
GROUP RATES (10+ tickets): 919/281-0587, Groups@DPACnc.com, or http://www.dpacnc.com/events/group_services/broadway_group_pricing.
SHOW: http://www.dpacnc.com/events/detail/dirty-dancing and https://www.facebook.com/events/569240449858256/.
VIDEO PREVIEWS: http://us.dirtydancingontour.com/sights-sounds/videos/.
THE TOUR: http://us.dirtydancingontour.com/, https://www.facebook.com/DirtyDancingOnTour, and https://twitter.com/DDOnStage.
THE TOUR CAST: http://us.dirtydancingontour.com/about/cast/.
THE TOUR CREATIVE TEAM: http://us.dirtydancingontour.com/about/creative/.
DPAC NEWS RELEASE: http://www.dpacnc.com/news/detail/dirty-dancing-on-sale-at-dpac-on-june-28th.
SUNTRUST BROADWAY SERIES: http://www.dpacnc.com/suntrust-broadway-series.
PRESENTER/VENUE: http://www.dpacnc.com/, https://www.facebook.com/DPACNC, https://twitter.com/DPAC, and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Durham_Performing_Arts_Center.
Dirty Dancing (1987 film): http://www.tcm.com/tcmdb/title/18187/Dirty-Dancing/ (Turner Classic Movies), http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0092890/ (Internet Movie Database), https://www.facebook.com/OfficialDirtyDancing (Facebook page), and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dirty_Dancing (Wikipedia).
Dirty Dancing: The Classic Story on Stage (2004 Sydney and 2006 West End musical): http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dirty_Dancing#Stage_version (Wikipedia).
Eleanor Bergstein (screenwriter and playwright): http://us.dirtydancingontour.com/creative/eleanor-bergstein/ (tour bio), http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0075044/ (Internet Movie Database), http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eleanor_Bergstein (Wikipedia).
James Powell (director): http://us.dirtydancingontour.com/creative/james-powell/ (tour bio) and http://ibdb.com/person.php?id=494839 (Internet Broadway Database).
Michele Lynch (choreographer): http://michelelynch.com/ (official website) and http://ibdb.com/person.php?id=88923 (Internet Broadway Database).
Dawn Reno Langley is a Durham, NC-based author who writes novels, poetry, children’s books, and nonfiction books on many subjects, as well as theater reviews. She is also Dean of General Education and Developmental Studies at Piedmont Community College in Roxboro, where she oversees the theater program at the Kirby Cultural Arts Complex, and a member of the Person County Arts Council. To read all of Dawn Langley’s Triangle Review reviews online at Triangle Arts and Entertainment, click http://triangleartsandentertainment.org/author/dawn-reno-langle/. To read more of her writings, click http://dawnrenolangley.com/.