Spirited, high-kicking ‘Dirty Dancing’ at the Merriam

WKZDANCE19A
Christopher Tierney as Johnny (left) and Rachel Boone as Baby in the North American tour of “Dirty Dancing – The Classic Story on Stage,” now at the Merriam Theater through May 21.

Proving once again that “Nobody puts Baby in the corner,” this high-spirited, high-kicking touring production of Dirty Dancing – The Classic Story On Stage gives the audience just what they came for: nostalgia. Lots of old songs – mostly and oddly not sung on stage – such as “This Magic Moment,” “Do You Love Me,” “Save the Last Dance for Me” – are the soundtrack for the romance between Baby (Rachel Boone) and Johnny Castle (Christopher Tierney), the same romance we all swooned over in the 1987 movie.

The show opens in the summer of 1963, the summer of golden innocence before everything went to pieces, the summer when JFK was still alive and president, when the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. still had a dream.  Baby’s loss of innocence is the pivot of Dirty Dancing’s plot – her name, like the show’s title (consider what “dirty” meant then!), reflects the “dinosaur” world at this Catskills resort. Boone’s skinny body and mop of hair provide the perfect contrast to the voluptuous cast of women who are the resort’s guests and the show’s dancers.

Johnny is hired help. Unlike the college boys who wait tables, he provides the entertainment and is well on his way to becoming a self-pitying, self-loathing gigolo. When his dance partner, Penny (Jennifer Mealani Jones, a sensational dancer), discovers she is pregnant – remember that abortions were illegal then – Baby’s snobbish doctor father (Jon Edward Powell) comes to the rescue.

There are subplot complications, but none of them matter much. We came for the seduction (which elicits girlish shrieks from the audience) and for the dancing. And do they ever dance. It’s always fun to watch a professional dancer pretend to be unable to dance, and Boone is wonderfully awkward as the innocent Baby, who learns a lot more than just the mambo, and finally delivers the lift – not quite as thrilling as it was on screen, but good enough. Tierney is as sexy and as handsome as the role requires, and his dancing is terrific and very live-on-stage.

Together they provide the show’s central message: Losing cynicism – Johnny has to learn that there are good people and worthy causes in the world – is as important as losing innocence. Baby’s real name is Frances, and, as Johnny  says, it’s “a real grown-up name.”

The production, part of the Broadway Philadelphia season, has been touring since 2004 with various stars. It features some strong singing by Chante Carmel and Billy Kostecki, as well as some odd directorial decisions (by James Powell), since we’re asked to pay attention to the spotlit singers while the spotlit star dancers are claiming our attention. Eleanor Bergstein wrote the original screenplay and also wrote the book for this long-running show.

 

Dirty Dancing. Through May 21 at the Merriam Theater, 250 S. Broad St. Tickets: $45-$119. Information: 215-893-1999, kimmelcenter.org