To lovers of the original movie it will come as a shock: Lisa, Baby’s sulky brunette sister, is now blond. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is the greatest and virtually the only serious difference between writer Eleanor Bergstein’s movie “Dirty Dancing” and “Dirty Dancing — The Classic Story on Stage.” The billing is accurate. Every location, setup, line of dialogue and moment is here. This isn’t a production, it’s a reproduction. With characters who don’t sing, is it a musical, a play or a dance show? A qualified yes to all three. Is it any good? No. Having banked a record-breaking £12 million ($23 million) in advance ticket sales, do the producers care? Doubtful.
The plot — bookish Jewish princess Baby wants to change the world, her sister wants to decorate it, Baby discovers dancing and sex with hunky working-class dance-teacher Johnny, loses the guy, gets him back — remains intact. The downside is that there is no tension apart from wondering how they will stage, say, the sequence on the lake — and no surprises all night.
Familiarity can, and indeed does, breed contentment: Auds understandably cheer the camp signature line “Nobody puts Baby in a corner” (even though here she’s less in a corner, more to one side). But Bergstein’s blind fidelity to her screenplay means even the movie’s most inconsequential moments wind up laboriously staged as she refuses to reconceive her material for the different dynamic of theater.
Movies juxtapose scenes and people in a single edit, but theater as lumpenly naturalistic as this demands each scene be separately set up. That’s largely why 96 minutes of screentime now comes over at more than two hours and 20 minutes (plus intermission) onstage.
That this cumbersome hybrid flares only fitfully into life is not the fault of designer Stephen Brimson Lewis. His set may not be attractive, but it does go some way toward solving the enormous problems raised by the show’s overly literal approach.
Using a double revolve plus hydraulics to lift doors, walkways and floors up and down through the stage floor, he sends characters and set pieces sliding on and off past four projection screens framed by twin staircases leading up a curved back wall to an upper level displaying the horizon.
Like a more controlled, smaller version of the visuals in “The Woman in White” (without the queasy optic effect), the screens present ever-changing moods and locales. One minute, Jon Driscoll’s video projections show the interior of a room at Kellerman’s Catskills holiday hotel, the next, a leafy nighttime exterior with a walkway rising up through the floor to complement it.
As Johnny, Josef Brown, a former principal with the Australian Ballet, is a holdover from the show’s first incarnation in Sydney in 2004. Brown is regulation-tall, dark and handsome, with the requisite built body and eye-popping technique. Georgina Rich’s Baby is as sweet and unaffected as the original’s Jennifer Grey, and their duets are the show’s strongest element,
Their beautifully judged partnering mimics the movie choreography (of course), especially the trademark climatic lift in which Baby is borne aloft as if in flight. Yet seeing the sequences performed live finally produces a much-needed spark of excitement in a show that remains unatmospherically tepid for dangerously long stretches.
Away from the dance sequences, however, the leads generate low wattage. Why? Because there’s no camera to frame them. “Dirty Dancing” may have traded on romance, but it was really all about sex. The millions of female viewers at which it was aimed didn’t care if the dialogue for these underwritten lovers was daft; they fleshed out their own fantasies by glueing themselves to Patrick Swayze’s pecs, presented in lovingly lit, smoldering close-up.
The two leads are supported by a largely anodyne cast and almost ceaseless music. Unseen vocalists and a nine-piece band gamely work their way through the movie’s soundtrack, plus a couple of numbers for which they couldn’t get the rights back in 1987, including “Save the Last Dance” by the Drifters. The only time numbers get a button is on the (too few) dance sequences plus the final sequence where two uncredited vocalists belt their way impressively through the climactic monster hit “(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life.”
As for the dancing, if only it were dirty. Nadia Coote’s Penny flashes effortless leg extensions — parallel to her body — the way other women flick their hair, and she’s surrounded by dancers with seemingly boundless energy. But hyper-energetic thrusts, shakes, lifts and spins aren’t necessarily sexy.
None of that is likely to affect a show already sold out until May to a crowd not looking for the best in musical theater or dance drama: They want to recapture their memories. Even so, this unimaginative production, dutifully assembled rather than directed by James Powell, may show them nostalgia ain’t what it used to be.