One of the odder theatrical experiences, the stage version of “Dirty Dancing” is a gargantuan souvenir of the 1987 movie, serving up generous layers of pretty cheesy nostalgia to an audience that seems to possess an insatiable appetite for it. But to give credit where credit’s due, the forces behind this show, including original screenwriter Eleanor Bergstein, understand what people love about the film and dish it out on a grand scale.
Already a hit in its prior Australian, Canadian and European incarnations, there’s no reason to think this first American staging of the show, premiering in Chicago, won’t similarly tap into apparently deep-seated desires to cheer on the story’s characters, and its more memorable bon mots, in a live format.
This transplantation of film to stage hews very closely to the original — the producers have subtitled the show, with a decided sense of grandeur, “The Classic Story on Stage.” Only some relatively minor and mostly ineffective efforts to give supporting characters additional dimension separate this version from the screenplay.
But staging a screenplay built on short dialogue scenes and quick cuts from one location to the next can lead to strange results. Physically, the show often feels like a never-ending transition, helped by the heavy use of projections and sets that resemble nothing so much as a larger-than-life pop-up book.
A giant tree limb descends, for example, for the scene in which Johnny and Baby leave the confines of Kellerman’s resort to practice their dance lifts — receiving applause from the audience, probably for grandness of scale and creativity, but also perhaps for the phallic nature of the image.
The show can’t really be considered a musical — it’s scored heavily, almost always using the same songs as the film, but until the last quarter of the show, the characters themselves rarely sing, and it’s purposefully very hard to tell what music is played live by the hidden orchestra and what’s recorded.
It lends another twist to the phrase “jukebox musical.” Since that phrase is already taken, perhaps this should be called a “DJ musical,” given the off-stage nature of the music, the indirect relationship between the music and the drama, and the fact that the large ensemble writhes sexily, and ably, to whatever’s playing.
As Baby, Amanda Leigh Cobb sure looks like Jennifer Grey, helped by the recognizable recreation of the film’s costumes and hairstyles. She also demonstrates genuine acting chops, finding a good balance between amping up the coming-of-age drama while not overly distorting it. This is no “Xanadu,” but a more reverent take on a beloved movie that’s campy more in its sincerity than its commentary.
As Johnny Castle, Josef Brown doesn’t look quite as much like Patrick Swayze, but he’s a more-than-acceptable facsimile. He’s surely a double threat –dancing brilliantly and brilliantly standing there without a shirt on. His delivery of the lines is less sure-footed, not just because of his Aussie accent, but also a certain high nasal pitch.
His delivery of the most famous line of all (c’mon everybody, say it out loud: “Nobody puts Baby in a corner”) is rushed and loud and all wrong, but the audience still receives it with a deafening ovation, having paid a hundred bucks and waited dutifully all night long to cheer it.
Immune to critical reviews, this “Dirty Dancing” would perhaps be more suitable as the subject of a doctoral dissertation. This is, after all, 21st century nostalgia for a 1980s film, which was itself rife with nostalgia for the early 1960s, before Kennedy’s assassination. It has something to say — and yes, it’s fairly deep — about our connection to the movies that moved us when we were young, and to our relationship to the fictional characters through whom many find a piece of their own identity, along with a few forever campy zingers.