A few crucial matters we should get out in the open from the get-go: It’s still true that no one puts Baby in a corner, she’s still bringing the watermelons, and older women are still putting diamonds in Johnny Castle’s pockets (while last month the poor fellow was living on Jujubes).
If the above amounts to gibberish to you, then we may have reached the end of our fruitful communication for the time being. On the other hand, if you’re feeling a certain 1980s-based libidinal surge, set to the strains of vintage R&B and (now-vintage) swelling synths, then you’re right in the wheelhouse for Dirty Dancing: the Classic Story On Stage, which appears at the Orpheum through October 19.
It’s a familiar story: the college-age Baby (Jillian Mueller) sets off for a Catskills resort with her family in the summer before JFK’s murder, where she discovers bump-and-grind dancing, helps abet an abortion, and volunteers to learn the finer points of competitive dancing with smoldering heap of masculinity Johnny (Samuel Pergande), after which the two enjoy a sweet fling that is ultimately doomed but not before an extended we’ll-show-them moment at the inevitable talent show (in which Johnny is revealed to be an unsung genius of ’80s choreography more than two decades ahead of his time, and who presumably went on to a lucrative career as architect of music videos for Paula Abdul and the Backstreet Boys).
The reasons that the original Dirty Dancing film has become an iconic cult classic aren’t too hard to figure. It was packed with nostalgia, and a young girl’s passage into womanhood framed as part of a nation’s parallel coming of age. Plus, there was Jennifer Grey, a charmer who actually looked like an ordinary, very pretty girl, and the phenomenon that was Patrick Swayze (alas, there’s no room or time for an extended meditation on his sweet spot of sex appeal, but it seems safe to say that a generation did indeed meditate extensively upon it).
Pergande has considerable shoes to fill, and he does—at least when he’s hoofing. He’s matched nicely by Mueller, who deftly portrays Baby’s evolution from dorky to slinky. The rest of the cast in this touring production is spot-on, a mix of expert dancers, and a couple of booming voices to match an energetic live band (Jenny Winton’s Penny is a standout, her dancing capturing the elusive abandon of the other-side-of-the-tracks sensuality that the film celebrated, stylized, and fetishized).
With a limited set, Dirty Dancing relies on projections that evoke landscapes and interiors with versatility and overall effectiveness (showing large images of people dancing seems quite superfluous, though, when such terrific dancers are appearing below them with the attraction of being real). The narrative strength of the show is, again, dependent on whether or not you know the source material more or less word for word: If you do, you’re in. If not, you may have taken a wrong turn on the way to another theater.
Does it work? Yes, indeed, if you’re so inclined—and why not? In the end, like the film, Dirty Dancing makes its awkward stand in favor of rhythm, fairness, affection, and heated sensuality. We could all do so much worse.