Performing Arts

Reconsidering ‘Dirty Dancing,’ the musical — this time after seeing the movie

In this image provided by Lionsgate Home Entertainment, Patrick Swayze, portraying Johnny Castle, and Jennifer Grey, portraying Baby Houseman, are shown in a scene from the film, "Dirty Dancing."
In this image provided by Lionsgate Home Entertainment, Patrick Swayze, portraying Johnny Castle, and Jennifer Grey, portraying Baby Houseman, are shown in a scene from the film, "Dirty Dancing." AP

The biggest difference between “Dirty Dancing,” the movie, and “Dirty Dancing,” the stage musical?

The dancing is a lot dirtier on the screen.

That was the biggest tonal difference that struck me after watching the 1987 classic starring Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey. Before reviewing the stage version at the Music Hall Tuesday night, I was a complete “Dirty Dancing” neophyte. I’d never seen a moment of the film, and didn’t even know the basic outline of the plot.

Now that I’ve seen the movie, the only thing I think it does better than the stage show is in portraying the sensuality of the dancers’ interactions. That’s undoubtedly a function of scale. The live dancers also bump and grind, and the stage version’s love scenes between the leads are more numerous.

But the intimacy of the camera lens intensifies the connections in a way that isn’t possible behind a proscenium. The movie is also a reminder of how much tamer the sex in movies aimed at young audiences has become in the 2010s.

My first impression about the dialogue in the stage show was that it seemed like a truncated and condensed version of what must have been more on screen. Not so. In fact, pretty much every syllable of the movie script ends up in the play, with two significant additions. Most movies get major trims in the editing process, so the extra lines here may have been filmed and discarded.

Frances “Baby” Houseman’s mother is considerably fleshed out into a much more real character. There are also multiple new subplots relating to race relations in the civil rights movement. All are welcome additions, and a mini love story involving the two featured ensemble vocalists works especially well.

The film makes a few of the stage production’s literal translations feel a little silly and overblown, like when Johnny Castle breaks out a window on the invisible car he’s locked his keys inside. The live version also makes too much of a fleeting moment in the film when Baby giggles as Johnny tickles her while practicing a dance move. Neither makes much organic sense in the show.

The bad ‘80s pop songs, especially Eric Carmen’s “Hungry Eyes,” are equally out of place in both.

But there are moments where the live “Dirty Dancing” outdoes its inspiration. The May-December romance — really more more a February-June thing — is a lot more stark, and a little disturbing in the film. Patrick Swayze showed every day of his 35 years, while the diminutive Jennifer Grey looked almost a decade younger than her 25. Her character was supposed to be on her way to college in the fall, so there’s a fairly big ick factor in the movie. The age imbalance isn’t as noticeable on the stage.

Also, the live version’s production design doesn’t commit the anachronistic sins of the movie, particularly in the costuming of the leads. The film took seemingly no notice whatsoever of period clothing or hairstyles for either Swayze or Grey. Watching Baby practice her dance moves in a screamingly ‘80s hairstyle and high-waisted jeans shorts takes the viewer out of 1963 and straight to the mall.

There’s no way to make “Dirty Dancing” the film play to the rafters, as a big Broadway-style musical requires. So blowing it out into more spectacle was really the only way to go.

High art? Definitely not. But a canny repackaging, capitalizing on the stage’s inherent strengths and downplaying what doesn’t work? You could do a lot worse.

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