Lawrence Toppman

‘Dirty Dancing’ takes the stage – but why?

“Dirty Dancing” scrupulously recreates the movie on stage, at Belk Theater.
“Dirty Dancing” scrupulously recreates the movie on stage, at Belk Theater. Matthew Murphy

Sometimes you can tell a book by its cover. The national tour bills itself as “Dirty Dancing: The Classic Story Onstage,” and that’s precisely what you’ll see at Belk Theater. So there are three types of potential audience members:

Those who have hoped fervently since the 1987 film came out that it would someday be performed live at 10 times the cost of a DVD. They oohed appreciatively as dance instructor Johnny hoisted Baby in the iconic poses of the final number, carefully re-creating the beloved steps.

People who have never seen the film (which was shot partly in Lake Lure) and/or attend simply because they have season tickets to the PNC Broadway Lights series. They’ll wonder what the fuss is about.

People who enjoyed the film but didn’t think we needed a scene-by-scene re-creation of it. I’m in that group, and this is my take:

1. You’d better not copy Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey down to their verbal delivery, body language and hairstyles if you don’t have their energy and charisma. Samuel Pergande and Gillian Abbott would’ve been better off if director James Powell had let them find their own natural rhythms.

2. Short scenes in the film work because we’re used to seeing that kind of editing onscreen. But onstage they seem abbreviated, hectic or ludicrous. Having Johnny and Baby stand in front of a rear projection of a lake and make splashing sounds – without ever getting wet – is risible, not romantic.

3. Dialogue ought to relate to action. You shouldn’t say “Nobody puts Baby in a corner” when Baby is not, in fact, put in a corner.

4. The dancing consistently stands out, especially when Pergande pairs with Abbott or dance instructor Penny (Jenny Winton). Choreographer Michele Lynch, who echoes original choreographer Kate Champion, designed moves that are sexy, elegant, funny and eye-catching.

5. The songs are a bizarre hybrid of original recordings played at the proper speed, original recordings sped up to facilitate a scene, cover versions played on a soundtrack and songs performed live. Doug Carpenter belts a strong “In the Still of the Night,” and Jennlee Shallow regularly rocks the house. (Her “You Don’t Own Me” may be better than Lesley Gore’s, and that’s saying something.)

6. The musical takes place in 1963, but apparently in an alternate universe from the one in which I grew up. American teens, however well-informed, were not chatting about the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Vietnam that summer. Nor did mixed-race couples date in the Catskills without attracting comment, even if the guests and bosses were liberal, well-to-do Jews.

7. Lines that could be spoken naturally in the movie have to be projected loudly above the stage action and soundtrack, so they lose emotional content most of the time. Caralyn Kozlowski makes a briefly touching character out of Baby’s mom, but none of the other actors can do that.

8. Imitation is not the sincerest form of flattery, but the laziest. A re-imagining would serve this story better than mimicry. All I could think walking out was, “I’ve had the mime of my life.”

Toppman: 704-358-5232

‘Dirty Dancing’

The stage version of the 1987 movie filmed around Lake Lure reaches Charlotte on its national tour.

WHEN: Through June 21 at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday-Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday and 1 and 6 p.m. Sunday.

WHERE: Belk Theater, 130 N. Tryon St.

RUNNING TIME: 135 minutes.

TICKETS: $20-149.50.

DETAILS: 704-372-1000 or blumenthalarts.org.

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