One night, after a long stretch of routine, entry-level dance lessons, Baby (Gillian Abbott) is brought to a private club where the dance instructors break from the monotony of teaching to express the full scale of their talent on the dance floor. There Baby encounters the most sought after dance instructor Johnny (Christopher Tierney) and they spark a romance. As their feelings for each other grow so does the awareness of the social divide that separates them. Problems arise and assumptions are made and their love for each other is put to the test.
In the film Bergstein’s story structure is clear and concise. With the stage play, however, something is oddly amiss. The story jumps around so much it is often difficult to follow the narrative. Much of the dialogue is mundane and flat, or nonsensical in its placement. There are jarring injections of inane content that does nothing to further the story, instead functions merely as a means of transitioning between scenes: an odd choice as the traditional set changes that are incorporated as transitions work nicely.
There are also some confusing choices in character development. In the section of the story that touches on Martin Luther King’s infamous speech, Baby reasons with Johnny about the value and necessity of standing up for your rights. Johnny, who is otherwise insightfully savvy and painfully aware of the pitfalls of the division between echelons, responds with uncharacteristic, mindless dialogue that seems to come out of left field. In three brief sentences Johnny shifts from an astute, intuitive man to an absurdly naïve boy. Even when he attempts to redeem himself he is held in arrested development. To be clear, this flaw in character is not a reflection of the ability of the actor. In truth, Tierney is by far the strongest element of the show with solid dancing and acting that is both natural and unaffected.
Another set of questions arises around the visuals. A minimal set design is often a pleasant incorporation, allowing the audience the freedom to imagine, such as with the doorframe in the second scene that establishes the house behind. The background visuals at the top of the show blend nicely with the set design, such as in the opening dance sequence and the balance practice scene in the forest. The visuals, however, progressively digress to the point of distraction into a source of awkward amusement during the dance practice scenes in the field and the water. In these two scenes the performances of the actors, though flawless, are entirely diminished by the unfortunate artistic choice in visual display, when the actors are disproportionately shrunk against the background imagery.
Performances are further diminished when the actors are asked to mime. Miming, unless intended as comedy, is a risky adventure. Having your actors drive an imaginary car (complete with over-the-top sound design) in an otherwise dramatic context chances disjointing the action and ejecting the viewer from the story. This, unfortunately, was the case when the dialogue from the car scene was eclipsed by the waves of audience laughter at the farcical action on stage.
Having said all that, there are plenty of things to love about this show. The dancing is professional and elaborate, the songs by singers Adrienne Walker and Doug Carpenter are lovely, and the performances from the leads Christopher Tierney and Gillian Abbott are nicely executed (dancing on a revolving stage. seriously?). The cast does an amazing job with the material and that is a testament to their ability as professionals. And it just goes to show you that regardless of what you are handed, with the right attitude and level of commitment you can pull yourself out of the corner, own centre stage, and earn a standing ovation, which is exactly what they did.
Dirty Dancing runs from January 12 – 17, 2016 at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre.
Click HERE for tickets and show times.