Dirty Dancing was a surprise hit in 1987 — a low-budget, coming-of-age story that launched the late Patrick Swayze to stardom and secured its place in the roster of cult classics. So it’s only natural that, in the spirit of Hollywood’s obsession with reimagining everything that was once a hit, the movie was developed as a stage production to cash in on the nostalgia.
This is why we can’t have nice things, Hollywood.
The production is a love letter to fans, that much is true. The dialogue is almost verbatim; the familiar soundtrack punctuates almost every scene; and even the set, a spectacle of moving projection screens, features settings ripped straight from the celluloid. It’s all designed to transport the audience right into the Catskills alongside the Houseman family, where the youngest daughter Frances — otherwise known as Baby — discovers herself and true love in the arms of Johnny Castle, a dance instructor from the wrong side of the tracks.
But the show relies too much on that familiarity, as well as the spectacular dance numbers, to carry it to the curtain call, hoping that will be enough to make the audience forget the glaring problems along the way. At least when there’s a bad live staging of the Rocky Horror Picture Show, the movie is still playing in the background. Dirty Dancing doesn’t even do us that favor.
Gillian Abbott immediately brings Jennifer Grey to mind as Baby, with her petite stature and graceful carriage. She is a trained dancer, but manages to make Baby’s stumbles and frustrations charmingly believable. However, Abbott matches the movie almost too well in many scenes— while fans might enjoy seeing glimpses of the original Baby in her inflections and movements, Abbott’s performance is more like an unnuanced impression of Grey than a three-dimensional character.
Sammy Pergrande cuts a fetching picture as Johnny, his Bolshoi ballet training evident in his clean lines and strong partnering skills. But that picture is shattered with each line he delivers. His wooden delivery and lack of chemistry with Abbott make the forbidden summer love fizzle before it ever sizzles. Even when he strips down to reveal abs as impressive as his dance background, Pergrande and Abbott just don’t quite manage to sell the sexual tension.
The show bills itself as “the classic story on stage” rather than a true musical, and rightfully so — there is barely any actual singing, and the leads never sing at all. It’s a shame, because additional musical numbers could help the show’s uneven pacing and awkward scene transitions. With such iconic music in the set list, including songs screenwriter Eleanor Bergstein was unable to secure rights to for the film, it feels like the main characters should belt out at least a few tunes. But when Baby and Johnny are having the time of their lives, someone else is singing about it.
There are a few high points that save Dirty Dancing from being a complete miss. Jennifer Irwin’s ‘60s-era costuming is extremely well-executed and is sure to please devoted movie fans with its accuracy, from Baby’s cut-offs and Keds to the floaty, grown-up number she twirls in at the end.
Jennlee Shallow’s velvety soprano shines in her featured solos, and Doug Carpenter’s powerful delivery of “In the Still of the Night” is a welcome surprise in Act Two. Emily Rice’s take on “Lisa’s Hula” is a moment when not deviating from the movie feels exactly right, drawing a lot of laughs for her moment in the spotlight.
The choreography by Michele Lynch and Craig Wilson is extremely faithful to Kate Champion’s original work, and it is brought to life by a talented ensemble of exciting dancers. Jenny Winton, a former Joffrey ballerina, commands the stage as Penny Johnson, Johnny’s dance partner. She and Pergrande perform together beautifully, with high, dramatic lifts and gorgeous connections that easily sell the trust of a long-standing partnership.
You can see what could have been during the final big number, when the energy suddenly picks up and the joy on both Pergrande and Abbott’s faces makes you wonder where it has been for the last two hours. Even though the last iconic scene manages to deliver a genuine Dirty Dancing experience — complete with Johnny roaring onto the stage through the audience, where there were screams like he was Elvis coming back into the building — it isn’t enough to save the overall production. Between the missing chemistry and the clumsy execution, perhaps Baby should have just stayed in the corner.