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Tuesday, Nov 21, 2017
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'Dirty Dancing' lives up to pop culture legacy at Straz

Full disclosure: the original “Dirty Dancing” was not a cultural touchstone of my youth.

I'd somehow missed it for decades. A week ago, all I knew was it involved a baby who apparently didn't like being put in a corner and that Patrick Swayze was shirtless a lot. By the time the curtain went up on “Dirty Dancing: The Classic Story On Stage” at the Straz Center, I'd seen the movie all the way through one time — 40 minutes earlier.

Judging by the joyful squeals and singing along during Tuesday's opening show, I am the extreme minority. So let's get this out of the way now: If you're looking for a nostalgia-bomb filled with emotional shrapnel from your earlier years, go ahead and buy your ticket, you are good to go. If you want to relive a nearly word-for-word, scene-for-scene adaptation of a film you'll happily watch over and over, get a ticket, you will not be disappointed.

Every iconic moment and song is there, sang and danced beautifully. It's not spoiling anything to say that Johnny Castle teaches Baby Houseman to correct her “spaghetti arms” to “Hungry Eyes,” or that they practice lifts in the middle of a lake.

If you're hoping to find some new dimension to “Dirty Dancing,” however, it's probably not going to happen.

If you weren't already familiar with it, you were probably a little lost in the story on Tuesday. The dialogue was sometimes hard to hear and delivered as if it was unimportant or secondary. But, let's face it, it is. “Dirty Dancing” has not lived on as a pop culture phenomenon since the summer of 1987 because of its richly developed characters or riveting story. It's a film that clips along with a serviceable plot, punctuated by some of the most riveting dance scenes ever filmed and a bliss-inducing soundtrack.

This production lives up to that legacy. It captures the thrilling sexiness and the joy of the film with music and movement. The characters communicate way more with their bodies than their mouths. Jillian Mueller perfectly matches the unsure and slightly goofy movements of Jennifer Grey's original “Baby” (not to mention the spot-on poodle hair), and it can't be easy to dance like someone who doesn't know how to dance when you have the moves Mueller does. The same goes for Samuel Pergande's Johnny Castle, he's perfected the cocksure strut of a guy whose coolness covers for a deeper insecurity — and he's got the moves, especially when he recreates Swayze's jump off the stage in the final number.

As for what is new for the stage, the tension between Baby and her father gets heightened, in a good way, thanks to a new scene and an excellent piece of acting from Mark Elliot Wilson, who brings an energy to Dr. Jake Houseman that wasn't there in the film. There's also a new but unnecessary B-story involving freedom rides and the Civil Rights movement that reminds you it's supposed to be 1963, but peters out without going anywhere.

When it comes to highlights, the final “Time Of My Life” number is definitely the big one, not only for the dancing, but an impressive vocal performance by Jennlee Shallow, who plays a member of the Kellerman's resort entertainment staff. Even better is her scene-stealing solo rendition of Lesley Gore's 1963 hit “You Don't Own Me” that comes midway through Act Two.

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