'Dirty Dancing' stage show gets by on nostalgic fumes

Tim Smith
Contact ReporterThe Baltimore Sun
If the movie "Dirty Dancing" gave you the time of your life, this staging might have you looking at the time.

For the second time in two years, the stage version of a hit, dance-centric movie from the 1980s has lumbered into Baltimore's Hippodrome Theatre. For the second time, the result has not exactly been uplifting.

As was the case with the first disappointment, "Flashdance," the current one, "Dirty Dancing," suffers from a desire to be a stand-alone stage show on the one hand, a painstaking recreation of the movie on the other. In the case of "Dirty Dancing," that duality is intensified by extensive use of large-scale video projections.  

Seems to me the better theatrical option would be sending the original 1987 film back into theaters in the sing-along format that has given "The Sound of Music" a whole new life. This could be a speak-along, too, giving audiences the chance to utter the immortal "I carried a watermelon" line right along with Jennifer Grey on the screen.

Instead, lots of money has been poured into a glossy vehicle -- sleekly designed by Stephen Brimson Lewis, propulsively directed by James Powell -- that gets by on nostalgic fumes instead of fresh lines and insights. It isn't helped by a cast surprisingly short on good old-fashioned star quality where it is needed most.

Let's face it. Eleanor Bergstein's story about a summer adventure in the Catskills during the summer of 1963 isn't Proust. The girl-meets-boy-from-wrong-social-class-and-learns-how-to-dance scenario cannot help but brush up against cliches as it heads to the inevitable happy ending, a la any number of movie musicals.

Still, there are disarming and rather sweet aspects to the film, which left such a mark on a whole lot of viewers of both genders back in the day.

What really gives the cinematic version of "Dirty Dancing" so much life, of course, is the sexy spark that emerges between Grey and the late Patrick Swayze (never mind all the stories about how they didn't get along off-camera). 

In the role of frizzy-haired Frances "Baby" Houseman, proclaimed Peace Corps-bound daughter of a well-off family vacationing at a Kellerman's family resort, Grey proved that a basically bland actress can still become a lively, likable-enough movie heroine.

Gillian Abbott doesn't quite achieve the same result in the stage version. The bland wins out. She delivers most of her lines in monochrome and isn't terribly persuasive at conveying the insecure/mature-for-her-age mix that makes Baby interesting.

Abbott's dancing doesn't exactly set the stage on fire, either. It's certainly proficient, but such an air-light show needs much more than proficiency. 

No question that Samuel Pergande can move. He's physically suited to the role of Johnny Castle, the eye-candy dance instructor at Kellerman's who finds himself falling for that watermelon-bearing guest from the other side of the tracks.

Pergande shows off plenty of balletic power and elegance carrying out Michele Lynch's choreography; more effortlessly swiveled hips are hard to imagine. He's got Johnny's cool-dude swagger down, too, with jump-out veins on super-pumped arms adding to the effect. (The shirtless scenes are ever so slightly undermined by the sight of a microphone wire running down his back.)

When it comes to acting, though, Pergande reveals more modest skills. The character never really leaps to life. And the flat delivery of the innumerable lines containing the word "Baby" makes Johnny sound like he's parodying dialogue out of "Double Indemnity."

Among the supporting players, Emily Rice makes a bigger impression than most with a vibrant performance as Baby's eager-to-shine sister, Lisa. Jenny Winton does solid acting and dancing as Penny, Johnny's in-trouble friend. There are stylish turns from Jerome Harmann-Hardeman as bandleader Tito Suarez and Herman Petras as the wily guest, Mr. Schumacher.

Petras gets to do a fun bit with the song "Besame Mucho," but that scene, like some others in the show, feels stuck on by whim. At least it's innocuous. A mash-up of "This Land Is Your Land" and "We Shall Overcome," sung around a campfire by the ensemble, is just embarrassing.

It makes sense to include mention of burning social and political issues of the early '60s (including abortion) to establish a sense of a world about to change, but the underlining here gets awfully effortful.

The best decision Bergstein made for the show was to keep the music a natural part of the story, as it was in the movie version. No breaking into song for the principals (well, Baby's parents get a nice, brief number, but it springs neatly into the scene).

More than 40 songs are packed into the production. In addition to some vintage recordings, there is a lot of live music-making, and most of that is strongly delivered by a small band and a couple of solo singers (Doug Carpenter is the strongest, most distinctive).

Folks who adore the movie will, presumably, get a kick out of all of this, right down to the recreation of the famous lake scene when Johnny tries to teach Baby a crucial lift for one of their routines. But even die-hard fans may find themselves noting that, for all the reproduction going on, not much new has been added in the way of things like character development or motivation.

This "Dirty Dancing" could use a fresh angle or two in between the duplication, more heart and soul in between the cha- and the -cha. The by-the-numbers show has its entertaining moments, to be sure, but doesn't add up to a time-of-your-life experience. It's more likely to have you looking at the time.

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If you go

"Dirty Dancing" runs through May 24 at the Hippodrome Theatre, 12 N. Eutaw St. Tickets are $30.25 to $115.25. Call 410-547-7328 or go to ticketmaster.com.