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Dirty Dancing - The Classic Story on Stage

The popular 1987 film lends itself perfectly to the jukebox musical format, even if the end result is less than perfect.

Josef Brown and Amanda Leigh Cobb
in Dirty Dancing
(© David Scheinmann)
Josef Brown and Amanda Leigh Cobb
in Dirty Dancing
(© David Scheinmann)
However odious comparisons may be, they're inevitable when dealng with Dirty Dancing - The Classic Story on Stage, now playing an extended run in Boston as part of its pre-Broadway national tour. The show, which is based on the hugely popular 1987 movie, tells the story of "Baby," a guest at a 1963 Catskills resort, who dramatically comes of age under the tutelage of bad-boy dance instructor Johnny Castle. As it turns out, never was a project better suited to turn into a jukebox musical, even if the end result is overlong and sometimes uninspired.

Dozens of evocative oldies are spliced into the script, which remains remarkably faithful to the original. All of author Eleanor Bergstein's memorable lines and scenes have been retained, and they zip by with near-cinematic fluidity, thanks to Stephen Brimson Lewis' ingenious set, which relies on LED video panels for scenic legerdemain. You get a real sense of summer in the mountains: you can almost smell the pine trees, especially when torrential rains pen Baby and Johnny indoors, and their dance lessons take an erotic turn.

However, their pairing is not quite erotic enough; in fact, they might as well be doing arts and crafts. Amanda Leigh Cobb is too earnest and perky as idealistic Baby, and Josef Brown has the necessary musculature to match originator Patrick Swayze and even manages to replicate many of his moves; but he's otherwise kind of a lox. Moreover, his mid-Pacific accent (Australian attempting American) proves an insuperable distraction. Brown may walk the walk but he can't as yet talk the talk.

Neither lead is called upon to sing much; most of the songs are piped-in snippets. What heavy vocalizing there is falls to Ben Mingay as Johnny's cousin Billy (a bit part up until the big finale) and Aspen Vincent, a petite dynamo who spends most of the show playing a housemaid until it's time to bring the house down.

The ultimate show-stealer is Britta Lazenga as Johnny's partner Penny, who gets knocked up, though not by him. (He's too proud and chivalrous to disavow his presumed involvement.) Lazenga has been blessed with Barbie doll proportions as well as flexibility: she's fully bendable. Not only is she an astounding dancer, she can act. Unfortunately, once Penny is prescribed bed rest -- to recover from a medical procedure that was both illegal and life-threatening back in 1963 -- the action flags.

In fact, most of the real drama here -- Penny's sick leave, Baby's brave attempt to fill in as Johnny's dance partner -- is dealt with by the end of the first act. At intermission, even aficionados of the film may find themselves wondering what could possibly be left to resolve. The second act, which brings the total running time to nearly three hours, is mostly a matter of tidying up the loose ends. Yet, by the show's finale, even devotees of the film might have wished they had chosen the instant regratification of a Netflix request instead.

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