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DIRTY DANCING disappoints at the Conner Palace Theatre

Roy Berko

(Member, American Theatre Critics Association, Cleveland Critics Circle)

DIRTY DANCING, THE CLASSIC STORY ON STAGE, which is now in production at the Connor Palace transports the audience back to the summer of 1963.  As is the custom of many well-to-do Jewish New York City families of that time, the Housemans have escaped for the summer to the Catskill Mountains, home of the Borscht Belt.  It’s a summer away from the sweltering city.  It’s a time for fun and games, and summer romances.

Frances “Baby” Houseman is planning to attend college, join the Peace Corps, and “save the world.”  In the course of the summer she grows up quickly when she falls in love with Johnny Castle, the camp’s dance instructor.  He’s a handsome, studly, smooth talker, from the other side of the tracks.

As the summer flows along, Baby asks her father to give her money, as it turns out to pay for an abortion for Johnny’s dance mate, secretly becomes Johnny’s new partner, enters into a sexual relationship with Johnny, gets her father to aid in correcting the botched abortion, and finally, to the emotionally stirring, ”(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life,” the curtain falls on the tale.

DIRTY DANCING was a movie destined for failure.  Made for about $6 million dollars, it opened to negative reviews.  Jennifer Grey was called “ugly,” Patrick Swayze was panned as too old for his role.  The story was perceived as too obvious.  But word of mouth, the sizzling connection between Grey and Swayze and their compelling dancing, resulted in first month sales of $24 million.  To date, the film has grossed nearly $214 million.

Locals should be proud of Grey’s Cleveland connection.  Mickey Katz, a native Clevelander who was a famous Yiddish musician/comedian, made appearances, among other places, in the Borscht Belt.  He was the father of Cleveland-born Joel Grey, who started his climb to fame as a Curtain Puller  at the Cleveland Play House, and became world famous as the Master of Ceremonies in both the Broadway and Hollywood versions of CABARET.  He is the father of Jennifer Grey.  Probably, her greatest role was opposite Patrick Swayze in DIRTY DANCING.  Her role as Baby, won her a Golden Globe nomination.

The stage version of the film follows closely the pattern of the movie, with some scenes and music added.  The usual musical theater format of the characters breaking into song to help push the plot along is not followed.  In fact, the leads don’t sing at all.   Yes, Baby and Johnny sing not a word.

The songs, sung by a couple of on-stage performers, but mainly off stage or via recorded tracks, are basically a lexicon of the pop songs of the era.  An original song in the film, (I’ve Had) The Time of My Life, by Bill Medley and Jennifer Warnes, won an Oscar.  Added songs for the stage version are, “Save the Last Dance” and “This Magic Moment.”

Eleanor Bergstein, the author of the script, is an outspoken liberal Democrat, who spent much of 2012 knocking on doors in Cleveland for Barack Obama.  She has freely taken ideological stands in the play, which spouts liberal politics of the time.  It’s the era of Martin Luther King, Freedom Marches, The Peace Corps, the assassination of John F. Kennedy, and mounting troubles in Vietnam.

The touring version, unfortunately, doesn’t have Grey or Swayze.  The leads on opening night, Josh Drake (Johnny), who was a fill-in for Samuel Pergande, who had injured his hand, and Gillian Abbott, who had just ascended to the role of Baby, had no emotional connection.  Both basically walked through their parts, sans charisma.  Their dancing lacked power and accomplishment.  What should have been the emotional climax, the famous silhouette lift scene, used to advertise the show, was slow and awkward.

Drake and Abbott weren’t the only fill-ins.  In baseball, there is an old expression that you can’t tell the players without a program.  The touring production’s opening night was about the same.  There were many understudies and “newbies,” which may have caused the lack of proper pacing, and community theater level performances.

The show’s highlights were provided by Jennlee Shallow and Scott McCreary.  Don’t get all excited, this is not The Scotty McCreary who won American Idol, but this kid does sing very well!

Many of the sets for the show are supplied by electronic media.  The effect is quite good.

The orchestra is excellent.  Michelle Lynch’s choreographer is adequate, but not as compelling as should expected for what many consider to be a “dance” show.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: If you go to see DIRTY DANCING THE CLASSIC STORY ON STAGE expecting the emotional and sensual overload that many experienced from the film, you will be very disappointed.  The only way to watch this touring production is to sit back, take the unspectacular staging, the mediocre acting and dancing, and soap opera story for what it is.  The opening night audience slowly got to its feet as the curtain call proceeded.  Was the show that good?  No, but take into consideration this is Cleveland.  Cleveland, the home of  polite people who stand at the end of almost every show, deserving or not.

Tickets for DIRTY DANCING, which runs through March 22, 2015, at the Connor Palace Theatre, can be ordered by calling 216-241-6000 or going to