There are certain crowd noises you’re used to hearing in live theatre. The occasional laugh. The appropriate applause break. Maybe a nondescript cheer in a production’s livelier moments.
If you attended Friday’s opening-night performance of “Dirty Dancing — The Classic Story On Stage” at the Lexington Opera House, you heard some that you might not expect, like excited whoops, near-lusty hollers and at least one enthusiastic female shouting “Go, ‘Baby,’ go!”
In a theater very much comprised of die-hard fanatics of the original 1987 classic film starring Jennifer Grey and Patrick Swayze, the production’s climactic dance prompted those reactions when a memorable line, lyric, melody or dance move either took the spotlight or all came together the way the audience was hoping for.
While the Broadway touring production of “Dirty Dancing” was thorough fan fare, it also turned out to be a solid and effective musical theater experience to casual fans or even unfamiliar theatergoers.
The production used minimal set pieces, some grainy photograph landscapes, well-placed backdrops and a few iconic props to recreate the setting of the family vacation Frances “Baby” Houseman (played by Kaleigh Courts) took to Kellerman’s vacation resort in 1963, only to find both a dance and romantic partner in the resort’s dance instructor Johnny Castle (played by Austin Patrick Craven). It was just one of several ways that the production was less of a screen-to-stage adaptation and more like taking an iconic album and turning it into a mostly excellent mixtape.
The elements that are essential to “Dirty Dancing” were there. Sometimes, the script, choreography and the film’s popular soundtrack (played by an eight-piece band off stage) were performed in a way that was exactly like the original movie while other times they were “remixed” to accommodate the stage’s limitations. A few additional songs and scenes were added to pack the production with even more music and some exceptional choreography. There were also additional scenes penned by the film’s original writer Eleanor Bergstein, which mostly worked as a way to provide background to main and supporting characters but fell flat when the escapist entertainment detoured into historical context or weighty social commentary.
Arguably, the show’s success or failure fell on the two leads, as Courts and Craven were given the challenge to embody Baby and Johnny while recreating their charmingly awkward dance partnership/courtship and steamy chemistry. Thankfully, the casting really pays off.
Courts especially shines portraying the innocence and idealism of Baby while playing up the character’s occasional two left feet, despite Courts’ real-life extensive dance experience. As for Craven, what he may lack in Swayze-esque charisma he makes up for with a worn-in toughness, physicality and intensity with just enough tenderness. This is prominently displayed whether he is attacking his dance moves, slowly winning over Baby during their dance rehearsals or some very seductive bedroom scenes.
The play had a great supporting cast overall with a few standouts, which included Baby’s vanity-obsessed and vocally challenged sister Lisa (Demitra Pace) and the nerdy Kellerman’s resort heir Neil (Owen Russell) providing plenty of comic relief. Other cast members, primarily Nickolaus Colon (Billy Kostecki) and Erica Philpot (Elizabeth), did double-duty as both actors and the vocalists who sang the majority of the show’s songs, including the classic duet “(I Had) The Time of My Life.”
It was during that final number, which included every lift, step and bit of dialogue from the film, that the stage production of “Dirty Dancing” went from a state of consistent joy to sheer jubilation. Even if a lyric in that song claims, “I’ve never felt this way before,” it was apparent most of this crowd was happy to find a different way to get those same feelings all over again.