AISLE SAY Toronto 


Written by Eleanor Bergstein
Directed by James Powell
Through February 2009
Royal Alexandra Thatre

Reviewed by Robin Breon

Nobody puts Baby in a corner—not even this reviewer.

Even as the well hyped Jersey Boys opened in Toronto, I found myself drawn to this show that I had so studiously avoided yea these many months since the Toronto opening in November of last year. Perhaps it was the announcement that the supremely gifted Ashley Leggat was set to take over the role of "Baby" Houseman and that two former stars of the Royal Winnipeg Ballet and the National Ballet of Canada (Johnny Wright and Julie Hay) would be playing the roles of Penny and Johnny respectively that drew me to it (due to the physical demands of the lead dancer role of Johnny Castle, Wright will split performances with Jake Simons who has been with the show since its opening). This combined with the fact that Mirvish Productions just released a new block of tickets that will take the run of the show into February made a compelling argument to check it out.

Dirty Dancing, the musical (as nearly everyone on the planet knows by now) is based on the movie by the same name and is the story of a summer love affair between the uncoordinated ugly duckling, "Baby" Houseman (played by Monica West in the performance I saw) and the handsome working class summer-stud boyfriend, the dirty dancer himself, Johnny Castle (Jake Simons) who is employed as a dance instructor by Kellerman's, a resort in the Catskills. As Baby's affluent Jewish family recoils at the growing relationship, we watch as Baby and the bf grow in maturity and respect for one another.

The musical is a little softer than the movie (Jerry Orbach was a tougher Dr. Jake Houseman in the film) and the second act is taken up mostly with the resort's end of season show that leads to the final climactic Billy Elliot-like moment in which Baby comes into her own as a dancer and a woman. Perhaps it was karma that had me going in to see this show the same week I saw Jersey Boys in preview uptown at the Toronto Centre for the Arts. Both shows are of the same period and employ music that is contemporaneous. In the case of JB it is of course the songbook of the immensely talented Four Seasons that comprises the musical score.

Dirty Dancing utilizes a pastiche of tunes—56 of them to be exact—that are sung by the cast as backgrounders to the action taking place on stage. But within this pastiche is a subtle but critical difference to the story of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons. One story seeks to acknowledge the historic epic in which it lives and the other seems to want to distance itself from it, or at the very least, to diminish it.

So along with all of the wonderful dance tunes of the period (Do You Love Me, BŹsame Mucho, Mama Said, etc.) we also hear snippets of Viva la Quince Brigada, This Land is Your Land and We Shall Overcome which enhances one of the subplots of the storyline that embraces the civil rights movement and deals with abortion and other issues of the day in a way that allows the story as a whole to be active and reflexive in its social consciousness without becoming cloying or maudlin. I would submit that this element forms the conscience of the show or more precisely, its heart and is partly responsible for the show's (as well as the film's) ongoing success.

The infusion of new leads into the Toronto production comes at a good time. The cast I saw was certainly tired but not without an internal stamina that continues to drive it forward along with an excellent scene design that includes a double revolve set that evokes period, place and no small amount of nostalgia for mothers, sisters and daughters who come in great numbers to relive the time of their lives with an emotional summer of flirty dancing.

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