The Classic Love Story On Stage
By Audrey Baran
September 29. 2016
The touring production of Dirty Dancing, presented by Blumenthal Performing Arts, landed at Ovens Auditorium September 23rd through 25th. As promised, the stage version of the classic ‘80s film exploded “with heart-pounding music, passionate romance, and sensational dancing.” From the first kick drum of “This Magic Moment” to the crowd favorite and finale “I’ve Had the Time of My Life,” energy was high on stage and in the audience as conductor Alan J. Plado led the orchestra through a roster of nostalgic hits. Other favorites included “Hungry Eyes,” “Hey! Baby,” and “Love is Strange,” which came complete with flirtatious lip syncing and seductive floor crawling.
Christopher Tierney provided a convincing Johnny Castle, the rhythmic rebel we all love, although (let’s be honest) no one can Swayze like the man himself. Tierney boasts an impressive resume including Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, Les Ballet Jazz du Montreal, and Houston Ballet, so my hopes were high for the male lead’s dancing skills. He left me a little disappointed, although my assumption is that, in true Johnny Castle fashion, he was playing it extra cool and perhaps at times a little dry as a way to capture the protagonist’s wild spirit and too-cool-for-school attitude. Tierney’s physique and voice were spot on though, and kudos to hair and wardrobe for creating that swoony Swayze look.
Brownyn Reed’s Frances “Baby” Houseman was more of an interpretation than reproduction but, again, it’s hard to top an original. Her petite dancer body under a big, curly wig and perfectly played wide-eyed optimism created Baby’s hopeful innocence, accentuating Baby’s innate humanitarianism and worldly compassion. Reed, who trained with The Joffrey Ballet and American Dance Theatre, has a heavier film and TV background than her male counterpart, including appearing as a regular on Law and Order: SVU. Her ratio of dancing-to-acting skills proved fitting for the role, as for most of the show Baby is an adorably awkward mover and only finds her groove at the end, thanks to the tutelage of her (spoiler alert!) main squeeze, Johnny Castle.
Jennifer Mealani Jones, who performed with Philadanco, on So You Think You Can Dance? (Season 10) and as an NBA 76ers Dream Team dancer, delivered an outstanding Penny, Johnny’s leggy partner who “gets herself in trouble” no thanks to the sneaky and snarky waiter Robbie, played by Matthew Amira. Other notables included Jerome Harmann Hardeman’s Tito Suarez, the resort’s band director, and Matt Surges as the laughable heir to the resort Neil Kellerman. But for me, the brightest star was Chante Carmel as the camp’s lead singer Elizabeth, who warranted the loudest applause (aside from the obligatory “swan lift” at the end) with her rendition of “We Shall Overcome.” In a poignant scene not found in the film, resorters are gathered around a campfire discussing the plight of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Freedom Riders, culminating in the iconic civil rights era song. Carmel’s performance left me breathless and teary eyed.
Perhaps it was the build up of fiery emotions in the Queen City over the past week but this scene, and really the whole production, touched me in a way the original film does not. Baby’s agenda to save the world and Johnny’s admiration for her for fighting, and then fighting harder, for what she believes in hit close to home for me, and I imagine for many Charlotteans in the audience too. Sure, I clapped to the beat, smiled with relief at lines like “I carried a watermelon” and “Nobody puts Baby in the corner.” I even convinced my husband to take a pic with me at the photo booth in the lobby. But what I walked away with from Dirty Dancing – The Classic Story on Stage, was more than nostalgic good vibes, but a vision of hopefulness for peace, equality, and inclusion in our freaking incredible city. This moment, albeit difficult, is indeed magic, baby.
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