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The popularity of Dirty Dancing is mind boggling when you consider it’s about the seduction of a naïve 17-year-old girl by a dancing male escort. Oh joy, a sugary underdog story.  Let’s watch the statutory rape again! Set in the 1960s at an upscale country club, there’s the upstairs/downstairs drama of golfing and fine dining, along with a botched abortion and bored rich wives hunting for gigolos.dirtydancing_main

Still, the 1987 chick flick was the first film to sell over a million copies on video, and the soundtrack went platinum. “(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life” won the Golden Globe and Academy Award for best original song and a Grammy for best duet.  Dirty Dancing – The Classic Story on Stage at the Civic Theater appeals to those devoted fans, the people who bought all of that stuff.  They went ga-ga for Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey 28 years ago, and they turned out in droves on opening night.

The stage version is a movie clone, which means it’s not an exact copy but close. Video and projection designer Jon Driscoll brings vivid scenes to the stage through slide projections – even the watery dance practice scene and summer rains, and nobody gets wet. Film lovers will recognize the Kellerman staff, mom, dad, and sister. The Dirty Dancing Orchestra sounds fine. The seven-piece group led by Alan J. Plado anchors the show that features “Hungry Eyes” and the big climax, “I’ve Had the Time of My Life.” You’ll hear it twice.

Samuel Pergande is well cast as the lean and conflicted Johnny Castle, as he honed his dance craft with big ballet companies and national tours of Billy Elliot. He can pirouette and gets the best line:  “Nobody puts Baby in the corner!” He can probably sing too, but is never asked to in this show.

Let’s be clear. Dirty Dancing is not a musical. As in the film, Johnny and Baby dance and fool around, everybody does, but they never break into song. That might explain the many dead spots.  Too often dialogue ends and people walk off stage, often dragging a chair. The best musicals have better transitions.

Jillian Mueller as Frances “Baby” Houseman looks and moves enough like Jennifer Gray to please DD fans though. Her voice and body are believably girly giggly, and we love her because she’s just average and wins in the end. Give her a star for enduring a bad perm and wearing a pink party dress.

Mark Elliot Wilson plays wise old dad, Dr. Jake Houseman, the role Jerry Orbach had in the film. (Orbach died in 2004, but you can see him several times a day in reruns of “Law and Order.”) Wilson’s delivery has a similar dryness, but lacks the snappy timing. Like so many married couples, Caralyn Kozlowski as Mrs. Houseman makes up for his shortcomings and has a lovely voice.

Tim Mitchell’s light design shoots orgasmic streams out into the crowd. Jennifer Irwin’s costumes are vintage 60s to die for, especially the party gowns with netted slips. Remember those?  The attractive leggy cast doesn’t disappoint in ballroom and Latin styles choreographed by Craig Wilson.

There’s more dancing in the stage version than the film, and a few extra songs. And dim sister Lisa steals the show in “Lisa’s Hula.” Emily Rice’s deliberately bad dancing and tone-deaf singing is hilarious and hard to do.  If you go, remember that this isn’t a video. You’ll have to wait two hours and twenty minutes for that big climatic lift where Johnny grabs Baby at her hips and lifts her over his head.

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San Diego Civic Theatre
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Kris Eitland

Kris Eitland

Kris Eitland covers dance and theater for Sandiegostory.com and freelances for other publications, including the Union Tribune and Dance Teacher Magazine. She grew up performing many dance styles and continued intensive modern dance and choreography at the Univ. of Minnesota, Duluth, and San Diego State Univ. She also holds a journalism degree from SDSU. Her career includes stints in commercial and public radio news production. Eitland has won numerous Excellence in Journalism awards for criticism and reporting from the San Diego Press Club. She has served on the Press Club board since 2011 and is a past president. She is a co-founder of Sandiegostory.com. She has a passion for the arts, throwing parties with dancing and singing, and cruising the Pacific in her family's vintage trawler. She trains dogs, skis, and loves seasonal trips to her home state of Minnesota.

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