If a producer was tasked with creating a musical designed to be played on a vintage Atari, the undercooked kitsch-fest that is the touring version of “Dirty Dancing” might be considered a success.
But the robotic theatrical version of the popular 1987 movie that opened a six-day run in Shea’s Performing Arts Center on May 3 seems ashamed to be a piece of theater, scared to death of its own personality and deeply cynical about the sophistication of its audience.
While the production has seen marginal technical improvements from the embarrassment that was its North American premiere in Toronto in 2007, the conflicted nature of the show is still in full force. The cheesy video backdrops seemingly lifted from Windows Vista advertisements remain intact if not quite as assertive, as does its creators’ insistence on propelling its cardboard characters from one ’60s chart-topper to the next.
This is theater for the addled mind, for the channel-flipper, for the YouTube deep-diver. It bears so little resemblance to theater that I sometimes questioned whether the poor cast members were merely computer-generated special effects. The production’s creators were apparently so petrified of complicating audiences’ nostalgia for the film that they excised any personality or idiosyncrasy from the script, preferring instead to construct a musical tour of the film’s favorite catch-phrases.
Which is a shame, because the “Dirty Dancing” coming-of-age story, which ties together the sepia-toned strains of youthful idealism, romance and class conflict in a package just dripping with sexual energy, is a great one.
For those who haven’t watched it in a while, it concerns a visit from the seemingly picture-perfect Houseman family to an old-school summer resort in the late 1960s. There, the stubborn but golden-hearted Baby, played here by Rachel Boone, comes into the intoxicating orbit of bad boy dance teacher Johnny Castle (Christopher Tierney). Under the prying eyes of her family and the well-to-do guests of the resort, they build their relationship into a kind of metaphor for overcoming class differences and finding common ground.
A big part of what made the movie so successful and durable were the performances of Jennifer Grey and Patrick Swayze, each nuanced and human enough to allow the easy suspension of disbelief.
But that suspension – the point at which the allure of the story overwhelms the lights and wires of the theater – is never possible in this production because the actors barely have enough time to blink, let alone develop a resonant emotional connection. Boone’s performance works well enough as an impression of Grey, but Tierney’s frequently wooden delivery frustrates any attempt to bring life to the stage.
Weak supporting performances only add to the amateurish nature of the production, further removing us from the story and increasing the show’s reliance on its central gimmicks: video screens, snippets from more than 40 songs of the era, and rote applause at lines like “Nobody puts baby in a corner.”
The great redeeming feature of the show is the dancing, choreographed by Kate Champion and executed with grace by the cast and particularly by the two leads. But it’s not nearly enough to rescue the production from the fatal flaws of its conception.
1.5 stars (out of four)
When: Through May 8
Where: Shea’s Performing Arts Center, 646 Main St.
Tickets: $32 to $72