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Thursday, December 01, 2016

Dancing out of the Dark

Girding Our Loins Dept.: The national tour of “Dirty Dancing” landed at Proctors in Schenectady shortly after the election. The timing offered an unexpected insight into the show, as my review reveals.


WHEN THE MOVIE “Dirty Dancing” premiered in 1987, it was looking back a quarter-century to a more agitated era. Civil rights demonstrations were bringing out firehoses in the South; the birth control pill invited sexual liberation, but abortion was still illegal. We’d struggled, we’d fought, we’d won, and the ambitious uncertainty of teenaged Frances Houseman, known as “Baby,” seemed quaint.

Christopher Tierney and Jennifer Mealani Jones
Photo by Matthew Murphy
In moving the movie from screen to stage, the filmic structure has been maintained, complete with video dissolves as it rushes from scene to scene with a near-constant musical accompaniment. It serves the sappy coming-of-age story well, but just after the Broadway tour arrived in Schenectady last week, everything changed. The key song of the piece no longer is “The Time of My Life.” It’s “We Shall Overcome,” poignantly rendered by Chante Carmel in a scene that plays out like a picnic that Pete Seeger is about to attend.

We’re picnicking at Kellerman’s, a Catskills resort, where the waiters and counselors are there to instruct and serve in whatever ways will please the guests – up to a point, as affirmed by hard-assed owner Max (a commanding Gary Lynch).

Of course, there are too many hormones in flight to keep things all that innocent, so it’s no surprise when dance instructor Penny Johnson finds herself pregnant. She seeks and nearly dies from a back-alley abortion, and only a plot-rich intervention saves her. (She’s played by the fabulous Jennifer Mealani Jones, whose dancing is one of the high points of the show.) 

By 1987, we were secure in the protection of Roe v. Wade. We’ll be kissing that goodbye in 2017 when the Supreme Court gets stacked with jurists who’ll make Scalia look like a flaming liberal.

The camp boasts of its integrated nature, and mixed-race couples are on the various dance floors together. But the white-boy patriarchy that’s always been threatened by such things will be back in charge shortly, with busloads of Bull Connors to direct the firehoses anew.

Music has always helped the fight. “Do You Love Me?” takes us through the dance steps of the time, showcasing the excellent ensemble, while “Love Man” was sung by the versatile Jerome Harmann Hardeman. And Jordan Edwin André gave beautiful voice to the Five Satins’ “In the Still of the Night” while a poignant plot moment played out.

“Spider Man” veteran Christopher Tierney brought attractive insouciance and ballet-trained virtuosity to the role of Johnny, while understudy Sophie Lee Morris did an amazing job stepping into the role of Baby for the first time, showing us her journey out of innocence through a convincing progression of dancing skill. Which means kudos, too, to choreographer Michele Lynch.

It’s what you expect from an Equity ensemble, so let’s also pay tribute to the importance of unions before they’re busted apart entirely. And the musical ensemble, led by Alan J. Plado, working in tandem with some pre-records, was also top-flight. You got your money’s worth with this group.   

Baby’s message is to fight. Fight for what you believe in, and fight for the rights of others. Even in the context of an otherwise mindless diversion, the message is inspiring, and we need to heed it now more than ever. Nobody puts our country in a corner.

– The Alt, 15 November 2016

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