The touring stage incarnation of “Dirty Dancing” rolls into town with more lights and machinery than Barnum & Bailey — an odd fate indeed for a wispy, nostalgic coming-of-age story grown into cult status after decades of TV showings. Though 1987 pic’s trappings are reconstructed with ruthless fidelity, what was engaging onscreen undergoes predictable coarsening when overmiked on the vast Pantages stage. Addicts will doubtless get what they come for, but for the uninitiated, a DVD rental wins out in the cost, convenience and heart departments.
While 1980s cinema probed 1960s male adolescent sexuality through the leering likes of the “Porky’s” trilogy, scribe Eleanor Bergstein and helmer Emile Ardolino took the decade’s gals seriously in the person of daddy’s girl Frances “Baby” Houseman (Amanda Leigh Cobb, cloning original star Jennifer Grey), whose spring awakening occurs during a Catskills summer vacation circa 1963.
Baby leans vaguely left despite unfamiliarity with the working class, a problem remedied as superhot lead dancer and disaffected loner Johnny Castle — Josef Brown channeling Patrick Swayze with an irritating Aussie accent — teaches her how the other half lives and how dirty it dances (more or less ritualized groping to a mambo beat).
In translating screenplay to stage first for Australia and then worldwide, Bergstein retains its tart, smart observations of interclass tension and family strife. But what worked in closeup is here vulgarized and distorted, even when the shrill Cobb and mumbly Brown can be understood, which isn’t always. Attempts at sweetness are dutiful but largely vacant.
Show placates the fanbase by re-creating, doggedly if not admirably, every single pic location and transition, leading to some really odd traffic patterns. Autos and footbridges are painstakingly hauled in and out, and turntables grind full sets into view for seconds-long use. (One particularly phallic log descends from the wings for Baby and Johnny’s cha-cha practice.)
All this literalism adds little fun while padding pic’s running time by nearly an hour. It’s also not fun to see likable film characters reconceived as buffoons or harpies under James Powell’s direction, though Kaitlin Hopkins stands out with a fully realized, sympathetic portrayal of Baby’s understanding mom.
But one quickly realizes it’s not about the people, it’s about the music and dance as 55 (count ’em) tunes are sung or underscored, mostly dating from the period with the inclusion of the odd 1980s sore thumb like “Hungry Eyes.” The hard-working, youthful cast shines it on in number after number, though Kate Champion’s dances often seem muddy against Jon Driscoll’s overly busy video walls and under Tim Mitchell’s lighting.
Finally, after a rocky and sometimes soporific 2½ hours, Johnny strides down the aisle to pull Baby (nobody puts her in a corner, or hadn’t you heard?) into the Oscar-winning strains of “(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life.” With Kenny Ortega’s original choreography honored if not literally repeated, the stories get efficiently wrapped up and all the excitement is finally justified. You probably won’t have the time of your life at “Dirty Dancing,” but the last 15 minutes may make you think so.