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Review: 'Dirty Dancing' at the Pantages Theatre

May 12, 2009 |  3:30 pm

Dirty Dancing1 Nobody puts Baby in a corner, but they nearly overwhelm her nostalgic coming-of-age story in the lavish “Dirty Dancing — The Classic Story on Stage,” now at the Pantages Theatre. With a cast of 39, a revolving stage and heavy use of video projection, the show seems eager to insist on how exciting it is. Better to follow dance instructor Johnny Castle’s advice: Don’t try so hard.

The 1987 movie about a nice Jewish girl who learns to bust a move at a Catskills resort cost about $5 million to make and went on to gross more than $170 million worldwide. Set in 1963, its blend of sentiment and sex made it an irresistible guilty pleasure. (The film, incidentally,  was choreographed by “High School Musical’s" Kenny Ortega.) The stage version, adapted by Eleanor Bergstein from her screenplay, is an odd hybrid of straight play and musical. The live numbers aren’t sung by the show’s leads, so the emotional momentum of the evening lies entirely in the dancing.

Happily, this is “Dancing's” strength. As Johnny, the long-limbed Josef Brown may have an accent that wanders from Brooklyn to Sydney, but his speed, precision and physical dynamism give his dance sequences real excitement. And Britta Lazenga, playing Johnny’s dance partner and the Girl Who Gets Knocked Up, has gorgeous form. Poured into a short-sleeved black leotard by costume designer Jennifer Irwin, legs slicing the air with confident grace, she confounds everything you thought you knew about states of matter. Gravity may apply to the rest of us -- Lazenga’s working her own physics.

Dirty dancing2 Choreographer Kate Champion and her team (Craig Wilson and David Scotchford) deliver a succession of big numbers with an acrobatic dance ensemble that throws one another around with abandon. At times the dancing seems more hectic than dirty, but it’s a lot more interesting to watch than Stephen Brimson Lewis’ curved-screen set. Adding elaborate video of dappled mountain streams and thunderstorms may distract momentarily, but audiences come for the emotion, not the weather. Women line up for this show because it articulates the bittersweet passage from Daddy’s girl to grown-up femme as well as offering the fantasy of losing it to the hot bad boy. With the rough-hewn heart of gold. Who can dance.

As for the girl at the center of it all, Amanda Leigh Cobb charms by keeping it simple as Baby. She has an easy rapport with her adoring father (John Bolger), elegant mother (Kaitlin Hopkins) and stuck-up sister (Katlyn Carlson, a good sport, making the most of her abbreviated role). And she seems genuinely thrilled to be dancing with Brown. Ben Mingay has a big, warm voice, but Bergstein and director James Powell haven’t quite figured out how to integrate the singer into the action.

We’re all here to see Baby come into her own, but it sure takes a while. The producers could easily cut 20 minutes off the evening without losing the heart of the story. As is, the endless parade of camp activities and general stage busyness takes the air out of a storyline ultimately intimate in nature. (The best scene may be Johnny’s tender seduction of Baby, beautifully lighted by Tim Mitchell.)

“No conversation,” Max (Jonathan Epstein), the resort’s owner, admonishes his cadre of hormonal summer employees, about to be unleashed on the daughters of his wealthy guests. Couldn’t agree more. “Dirty Dancing” is best when it shuts up and mambos.

-- Charlotte Stoudt

Dirty Dancing — The Classic Story on Stage” Pantages Theatre, 6233 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood. 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sundays. Ends June 28. $25-$98. (800) 982-ARTS. Running time: 2 hours, 45 minutes

Top photo: Josef Brown and Amanda Leigh Cobb. Bottom photo: Brown, Cobb and Britta Lazenga. Credit: David Scheinmann 

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