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Theater Review: “Dirty Dancing” at National Theatre

The cult classic movie hits the stage with its ’60s score, sizzling choreography, and appealing young lovers intact.

Jillian Mueller and Samuel Pergande in Dirty Dancing. Photograph by Matthew Murphy.

Dirty Dancing: The Classic Story on Stage debuted ten years ago in Sydney, Australia, far from the Catskill Mountains in New York state where the story is set and decades after most of the resorts in the “Jewish Alps” had closed their doors. But the popularity of the movie lived on (and on and on), convincing its original screenwriter Eleanor Bergstein to reshape it for the theater. 

There is a certain historic irony that the production in Hamburg, Germany, in 2004 “broke records for achieving the highest advance [ticket sales] in European history.” 

But it makes sense: The show is terrific. In the National Theatre’s current production, directed by James Powell, Jillian Mueller is delightful as Francis “Baby” Houseman, the sheltered doctor’s daughter who learns more than the mambo in the arms of the hotel’s dancing instructor. Samuel Pergande smolders as Johnny Castle, the man with the all the right moves. Pergande’s background is more dance than acting, but Johnny Castle always said more with his hips than his lips anyway.

The production also features two soloists, Doug Carpenter and Jennlee Shallow, whose voices add dimension to the recorded ’60s soundtrack.

Set designer Stephen Brimson Lewis and lighting designer Tim Mitchell deserve kudos for creating magic with scrims and spots to reproduce summer in the Catskills complete with mountain views, glorious sunsets, and sudden showers. Even when the sound (by Bobby Aitken) at one point drowns out the lovers, when they are practicing dance moves in a stream (behind a scrim with sounds of rushing water), the effect is charmingly comic.

Bergstein bows to political correctness by injecting a scene where the staff and guests listen to Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream Speech” and take up a collection for the Freedom Riders. In the summer of 1963, the Catskill mountains echoed with the sounds of “Hava Nagila,” not “We Shall Overcome.” Even Baby Houseman, who wants to save the world, is focused on Southeast Asia, not the American South.

But why quibble over facts in light of glorious fantasy? Johnny and Baby may not have a future, but this show certainly does.

Dirty Dancing is at the National Theatre through September 14. Running time is about two hours and 30 minutes, with one intermission. Tickets ($58 to $98) are available online