Review of Broadway Across Canada's Dirty Dancing; December 29, 2015 - January 3, 2016 at the Southern Alberta Jubilee Auditorium in Calgary, AB.

Dirty Dancing on tour sizzles  

Native Calgarian Gillian Abbott leads the way in this classic coming-of-age story

From the opening heart thumping drum beats that kick off its opening number, Dirty Dancing - The Classic Story On Stage, presented by Broadway Across Canada is electrifying. This exciting stage production, based on the beloved 1987 film is almost too hot and sexy for the Jubilee Auditorium’s stage and audiences will find themselves fanning themselves as the show continues its tour across North America.

For Calgary audiences, there was an extra bonus to seeing the show this week – the opportunity to see local Calgary girl Gillian Abbott shine. Calgarians involved in the local dance scene may remember Abbott from her dance competition days with Dance Spectrum. They may also recall her performing with The Young Canadians of the Calgary Stampede in the annual Evening Grandstand Show.

But this talented artist has come a long way since then, including graduating from The Julliard School in New York and dancing for Cirque du Soleil in the Beatles LOVE show in Las Vegas. Now, she’s stepped into the role of a lifetime – the iconic role of Baby Houseman, who literally has the time of her life in Dirty Dancing’s classic coming-of-age tale.

When stepping into this role, Abbott certainly had a tall task ahead of her. We all remember Jennifer Grey’s portrayal of Baby in the film – it’s something many of us grew up watching. However, Abbott has made this role her own and her version of Baby is absolutely stunning. Don’t be misled – Abbott’s performance is not a simple reenactment of Grey’s performance.

Abbott’s portrayal is genuine and she captivates you as you follow her on Baby's journey. Her version of Baby is intelligent, passionate, occasionally stubborn and she always wears her heart on her sleeve. With every line of dialogue Abbott delivers, you can see there’s personal meaning, motive and interpretation involved and it’s refreshing to see such a personalized rendition of this well-known role. Combined with her excellent characterized physical movement (no surprise, given her dance background), Abbott delivers a very impressive performance.

Native Calgarian Gillian Abbott and Christopher Tierney dance their ways into the iconic roles of Baby and Johnny in Dirty Dancing, The Classic Story On Stage. Photo courtesy of Broadway Across Canada. 

Equally as impressive is Christopher Tierney in the role of Johnny. Like Abbott, Tierney also started his careers as a dancer, dancing with Les Ballet Jazz du Montreal and Houston Ballet. It was therefore quite superb to see Tierney demonstrate such high calibre acting ability, proving himself as an equally talented actor as he is a dancer. 

The chemistry between Tierney and Abbott is steamy hot and their final dance duet – set of course to Time Of My Life, definitely lives up to its hype. However, besides delivering sexy chemistry and crowd-pleasing dancing, their onstage relationship is passionate, complex and very convincing.

Less impressive is Jenny Winton in the role of dancer Penny Johnson. While Winton’s legs and extensions are stunning (a prerequisite for any dancer who kicks her way into this coveted role), she doesn’t command the stage as her character should and her performance comes across as lacking confidence.  

You can often see Winton thinking as she’s dancing and it takes her out of character. When I attended the show, she hit all the lifts with Johnny during the Mambo number, but she didn’t sell her performance. She didn’t hold her upper body up during the lifts and she often looked down.

The famous helicopter lift Winton did with Tierney at the climax of the Mambo number looked like a struggle. The Mambo number is Penny’s chance to shine and to me, it looked like Winton barely survived. Of course, partnering is an equal effort by both parties, so it's not wise to criticize one partner over the other. However, I can definitely say I've seen much stronger Pennies in the past - most notably the stunning Britta Lazenga in the Toronto production a few years back.

Jenny winton (Far left), with Abbott and Tierney. Photo courtesy of Broadway Across Canada. 

While I commend Winton for her admirable attempt with her character’s dialogue, I don’t feel she was quite successful. I think the problem is that she tries too hard when it comes to the acting – she doesn’t let her lines come out naturally like Tierney, and it doesn’t look like she’s created her own personal meanings and motives behind each line of dialogue like Abbott has. Therefore, her lines sound rehearsed and insincere. If she took a step back and just let everything come out naturally, her performance would probably come across more genuinely.

Kudos goes to actors Mark Elliot Wilson and Margot White in the roles of Baby’s parents, Dr. Jake and Marjorie Houseman. The roles of the parents are not particularly winning roles like Baby and Johnny. Marjorie’s role is perhaps written to gain a little more audience sentiment than Jake’s, and Jake’s role is written more or less as simply a conflict that Baby and Johnny must hurdle over to be together. However, Wilson and White are splendid in their roles and definitely won my vote. It’s obvious that Wilson and White are true actors – they’re able to combine masterful characterization, movement and vocal delivery to touch audiences and make their characters relatable.

Supporting actors Alex Scolari, Scott McCreary and Ryan Jesse are also very strong. Scolari is hilarious as Baby’s sister Lisa, and McCreary is spot on in his portrayal of the handsome, yet douchebag waiter, Robbie. As rich boy Neil Kellerman, Jesse is very believable and his very awkward dancing (done intentionally, I’m sure), is really funny to watch.

However, aside from the journey of Baby and Johnny's relationship, the real star of Dirty Dancing is of course the dancing, staged by choreographer Kate Champion. The dance numbers in this production are ridiculously hot. With steamy dance moves and fantastic partnering work highlighted by impressive lifts that appear effortless, the dancing is to die for. I’m happy to report that even when doing challenging partnering, the ensemble dancers always stay in character, which is fabulous to see.

The cast of Dirty Dancing, The Classic Story On Stage. Photo courtesy of Broadway Across Canada. 

Ensemble dancer Joshua Keith tears up the stage. He shines in every style of dance he performs, including sophisticated ballroom, the sexy Do You Love Me? number and the high energy, pelvic thrusting Time Of My Life finale. Also very impressive is Kevin Mylrea, who is a rock when it comes to partnering and who is able to demonstrate some of his exquisite dance technique throughout the show, including a few of his trademark pirouettes.

Also worth noting in the ensemble is Danielle Diniz who adds really great spunk, energy and enthusiasm to her dance numbers, and the rest of the female dance ensemble, who showcase fabulous extensions that match any Radio City Rockettes or Moulin Rouge performance.

Last but not least, shout outs go to Adrienne Walker and Doug Carpenter, who gloriously belt out the show's tunes throughout the production. Carpenter, who plays resort employee Billy Kostecki is adorable and charming in his characterization and brings down the house with the final notes of his rendition of In The Still of the Night. Walker meanwhile is true triple threat, dancing, singing and acting her way as various ensemble characters, always with brilliant flare, style and superb singing.

Lead singers Adrienne Walker and Doug Carpenter shine. Photo courtesy of Broadway Across Canada. 

Director James Powell in collaboration with set designer Stephen Brimson Lewis and Lighting Director Tim Mitchell have done an excellent job transporting the classic story of Dirty Dancing from screen to stage. While not a perfectly flawless effort, the creative team has managed to find creative ways that, for the most part, work well with bridging the gap between theatre and film. Backed by the sensational orchestra led by Alan J. Plado and enhanced by Bobby Aitken’s sound design, this is one movie to stage transplant that doesn’t disappoint.

While the performances and production aspects of Dirty Dancing are sensational, these attributes are not what defines the show. At the heart of the story is the tale of a teenager who experiences the summer of a lifetime, where she finds her own path. 

As adults, we’ve all encountered this stage in our lives. While it may not have been at a summer resort, and it may not have happened to us in the same type of way, every adult can look back on their memories and relate to Baby’s story from some point in their life.

That’s what makes this story timeless. It’s not the iconic overhead lift in Time Of My Life, it’s not the famous “Nobody puts Baby in a corner” line, and it’s not Johnny and Baby fighting over their dance space. It’s about the moment you had in your adolescence when you realized you needed to choose the path right for you. 

Broadway Across Canada’s Dirty Dancing - The Classic Story on Stage is magical. The performances, dancing, sets and music light the stage on fire and will take you back to your memories of when you had the time of your life. 

Catch Dirty Dancing at the Southern Alberta Jubilee Auditorium in Calgary, AB until January 3, 2016 or on tour at a number of other cities across North America. Visit Broadway Across Canada's website for ticket information and show dates.