Cinematic production values? Check. Score full of instantly recognizable pop hits? Plot taken straight from a beloved movie? Check and check. "Dirty Dancing" has all the requisites of a hit, and that's just what it is. The musical based on the 1987 movie of the same name opened in in 2004. It's been playing continuously since.
In its current tour running through Aug. 30 at the Cadillac Palace Theatre, the show is as crowd-pleasing as ever. The coming-of-age saga of Baby "Frances" Hausman during one long, hot American summer at a Catskills resort is defined by luscious dancing, a feel-good romance and music that'll make you nostalgic for the early 1960s, even if you weren't around to experience them.
By essentially replicating that movie, "Dirty Dancing" the musical has a built-in audience and is virtually critic proof. If you loved the movie, you'll feel likewise about the show. If you don't love the movie, you're being overly cynical.
"Dirty Dancing" is a singular sort of musical in that neither the leading lady nor the leading have any vocal solos. Instead of singing when their emotions become too strong for mere words, Baby (Gillian Abbott) and her dancing-tutor-turned-love-interest Johnny Castle (Christopher Tierny) use their bodies. The heavy duty vocal lifting is accomplished by Doug Carpenter and Jennlee Shallow, a winsome pair who serve as a pop-culture Greek chorus, providing an audio backdrop that features tunes such as "You Don't Own Me" "Hungry Eyes" and (of course) "(I've Had) The Time of My Life." As Carpenter and Shallow enact their own little romance, their songs push the story forward with an emotional resonance that heightens the increasing ardour between Baby and Johnny.
That story unfolds at Kellerman's resort, where 17-year-old Baby, her parents and her dorky younger sister Lisa (Alex Scolari, making the most of the comic role and nailing the second act's hilariously cheesy hula) have repaired for the summer. The plot hinges on Baby's clandestine romance with Johnny, and with the attendant issues of class and elitism the relationship brings to the fore. Through Baby and Johnny, "Dirty Dancing" gently hints at the societal upheaval looming on the horizon. Within five or so years, the petticoats and bullet bras favored by the female guests will have gone the way of matching glove and hat sets. Still, as musicals go, "Dirty Dancing" is more "Beach Blanket Bingo" than "Hair."
Director James Powell oversees a show that integrates video projection, dance and set design to glossy perfection. Jon Driscoll's gorgeous, atmospheric videos are both clever (and funny) meta-callbacks to the show's big screen origins. The shimmering lake where Baby and Johnny practice their lifts, the verdant pines that surround the resort and the torrid, bordello-red afterhours dance parties are fittingly cinematic in scope.
But the focus is first and foremost the mesmerizing dancing on display. Michele Lynch's choreography is two degrees removed from the movie: Her work is modelled on that of Kate Champion, who in turn replicated the film's dance sequences for the original staging of "Dirty Dancing." Abbott and Tierny make for a dancing dreamy team whether they're crawling toward each other in "Hungry Eyes" or twirling through a crowded ballroom in the ear-worm worthy finale. Also crucial to the show's success is the sinewy, impossibly graceful Jenny Winton, who plays troubled dance instructor Penny Johnson with passion, precision and enough heat to power a summer's worth of campfires.
From the three, instantly recognizable percussive beats that set the audience into applause before the lights even come on "Dirty Dancing" to the soaring last notes, the production is a worthy celebration of an iconic piece of pop culture.
"Dirty Dancing" continues through Aug. 30 at the Cadillac Palace Theatre, 151 W. Randolph. Tickets start at $18. For more information call 800-775-2000 or go to BroadwayinChicago.com.