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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 

Comments () | Archives (10)

There is no doubt that this musical will be a major Broadway hit. All you had to do was watch the faces of the "Dancing With the Stars" pros on opening night. I think they approved big time, as did the rest of the audience. As Tom Bergeron would say, the performers received standing "O's" from the first bow.

I fairly recently was watching “Dirty Dancing” on video, and my ultimate take on the movie is that it is essentially a pro-abortion propaganda movie with dancing added as “sweetener” (or enticer). The dancing IS “sweet,” but I want to understand this movie – and, if the same storyline, the play – for what they are. If the play has the same storyline as the movie, as seems to be promised, then I believe it has the same basic intention, even if most of those now performing in it don’t realize it.

Unfortunately, I have to agree with those who found this to be a really bad attempt on stage. My daughter is a huge Dirty Dancing fan, so when I heard about the show I bought tickets immediatley. We anxiously awaited the opening scene and from there it went all wrong. The set was similar to one we would find in a college production. Both lead actors were at best poor in their roles. The dancing was okay, but the overwhelming bad acting, bad set and terrible production made the show a complete and utter disaster! I wanted to leave and at the break most people were talking about their disappointmetn in the show. This was the WORST stage production I have ever seen and I’ve seen many. Don’t waste your time at this show. I’m sorry I even have to write this.

AWFUL. Really, completely, awful.

The "actor" who plays Johnny absolutely butchers the role. After he woodenly uttered his first line I actually laughed out loud then expected everyone else to collectively say WTF? It sounded like he was from Russia, then Australia, then Brooklyn - but he was consistent in one thing: his robotic delivery...so there's that. Yes, he danced well, but couldn't the casting director find someone who could dance AND talk? I can't say enough bad things about this guy's performance. I've been to a lot of bad theater but not THIS awful. The guy has one note, monotone, and he sticks to it through the entire debacle.

And seriously, Ms. Screenwriter? Did you have to politicize it? The voting and freedom march, all those extra little scenes? Bleh. The one good thing was the Pirate telling his wife he knew she lied when she pointed to Johnny as the source of the thefts.

The music was a bright spot, dimmed for me and my seat neighbors by the chubby drunk woman in front of us who sang along and half-stood to dance along with the soundtrack which was really charming. Well done tubby. ...hearts and voices...voices hearts and hands...yes, dear, we all saw the movie, we all know the words.

I wish I could get those hours of my life back.

This show was a major disappointment. The acting is awful -- actually the script is awful. It lacked any flow. Hey and where do they get off calling this a musical? I didn't like the move (too schmaltzy) so what made me think I would like the "musical" - so clearly part of the blame is to be laid at my doorstep. I would have to see the movie again to recall the details (please no you cannot make me) but I do not recall the civil rights stuff. It really seemed awkward and out of place. What positive thing can I say? . . . . The Pantages Theatre is beautiful.

Unfortunately I have to agree. Not one applause until Lisa sang her solo, not even at the end of the first act before intermission. So I would have to say most in the theater felt the same way. I have seen many Broadway plays and not one have I walked away with such disappointment.

The reviewer goes MUCH too easy on this production, which is a terrible disappointment. I brought my daughter for a wonderful bonding experience and we were so bored we walked out midway through the second act. The book is awful, padded with deleted scenes that were smartly cut from the movie and, reinstated for the play, just dragging the story down. The acting is embarrassing (especially the guy playing Johnny, what IS that accent?) and the silences in the theatre were the longest silences I've ever heard in a musical. Amazingly, most of the audience sat attentively, although there was very desultory applause. And there is no humor, I seem to remember the guy who owned the hotel being a jolly guy who lightened things up. The guy playing the role in this production looks like he knows he's in a dud and just wants to get his paycheck and go home. And even the dancing, the DIRTY DANCING, of all things was lacking. Very technically proficient but not at all sexy, probably because they open the show with it so there's nowhere to go from there. They should never have let the woman who wrote the movie write the book for the play, she just copied her script faithfully and came up with nothing new.

I totally disagree with these reviews. I saw this play on June 19th. I had the good fortune to sit in the 4th row center.

It did start a little slow. The lead - Amanda Leigh Cobb - is a ringer for Jennifer Gray. Josef Brown does remind me of Patrick Swayze. His accent was heard more towards the end. Remember - we were there to see "Dirty Dancing" and that is truly what we got.

Britta Lazenga - boy does she dance. Her ballet training was quite obvious.
The two real surprises of the night were a very cute little female singer who sang a solo ( I wish that I knew her name) and as a duo with Ben Mingay.

I wish that I could have seen all of these people after the show to say - "great job - you guys are going places".

My nephew is a theatre major and dancer at UC Irvine. I kept saying how I wished that he could see this show.

I have seen everything from "Topol" in "The Fiddler" to "Yul Brenner" in "The Kind and I". I grew up with those classics, and "Dirty Dancing" is one of the best all time romances. This production did touch on those parts of the movie dialog that could not be sung.

The ending with "I've Had The Time Of My Life" with the full cast was outstanding.

For this theater season, I felt that the "Phantom of the Opera" and "Dirty Dancing" were the best of the two.

Oh, for heaven's sake, lighten up.

My wife and I saw Billy Elliott in February. We enjoyed it. The kid we saw (Trent Kowalik) was terrific. I'm an Elton John fan and thought Aida was great ... better than his other two.

But if you told me I had to go see Billy Elliott (263 or 264 Tonys, I lost count) or Dirty Dancing a second time tomorrow, I'd scrambling to be in line for Dirty Dancing.

My perspective: We live in mid-America. I get to New York a lot on the company dime and go to shows both at that time and when using frequent traveler points on trips with my wife. Speaking of shows the critics blasted, Chess is my all-time favorite because of the music and original cast (Caroll and Kuhn), not the ridiculous plot. I let my hair down and have non-snooty tastes. I guess I'm saying I'm proud to claim a combination of sophistication and exposure on the one hand, and everyman, leisure-time tastes on the other. I've been to everything from Nine with Raul Julia 30 years ago to the bomb Cry-Baby the day before it closed.

We saw Dirty Dancing in L.A. on vacation on June 19, the night they had some (yes, inexcusable) technical problems during the first act and Kaitlin Hopkins (Marjorie) and Ben Mingay (Billy) came out during the delay and were good sports and entertained us. (Mingay did a shopping cart pantomime. Maybe you had to be there...because they were being such troupers).

Before we went, I had done some reading on this and saw the horrific review in Chicago and the so-so one in the LATimes. The latter at least was fair. I was braced. Heck, I assumed Brown's accent was going to be so pronounced, I would have thought I was in a Sydney bar. My wife and I had agreed there seems to be no middle ground on this, and we were going to love or hate it.

We loved it.

All right, all right, Britta Luzenga's legs are, um, long, and that's part of it, but what's wrong with that? And, folks, take the time to read the Playbill and it becomes apparent this is a really interesting hybrid-type cast with ballet and ballroom backgrounds. And can they EVER dance. There's a husband and wife ballet couple and other ballet figures, and they all understudy the major parts. And you sit there and go, especially for Brown: God, this sure would be hard to do eight times a week.

Work of art? No. A really fun show? Yes. THE LEADS DON'T SING. So what? Get over it! Ben Mingay, he of shopping cart fame, becomes Bill Medley and Candice Marie Woods is suddenly Jennifer Warnes. But I think a lot of the folks who have a problem with this are the people wanting to make sure you know they could review a Chekhov play, too. You don't have to be mindless, though, to enjoy this. I swar to God, I had no idea who Kate and John were until the 7 billionth story about them in the same media in which reviewers so careful to advertise their highbrow tastes. I'm talking about intelligent folks in their diversionary time, after they've paid for tickets, who don't care about PC or feigned intellectualism ... this is a fun, entertaining, ambitious and enjoyable show. And although this review at least pays homage to the dancing, the athleticism in this show is stunning -- if you take the time to notice it. It's a juke box show in a sense, but it ain't All Shook Up. It's a "soft", diversionary, wistful drama with music and dancing.

I didn't notice Brown's accent as much as what seemed to be a self-conscious attempt to spit out the words in "American." If I hadn't read about it in advance, though, I probably wouldn't have noticed it. Contrary to what I had read, he did not sound like Paul Hogan. And, yeah, when he charged down the aisle near the end to return to Baby, I had to hold my wife back from following him.

I'm not fooling myself. This is going to get hammered in New York, and I'm guessing they know it and it's another reason it's on such a long pre-Broadway circuit. There have been several notable instances of late of shows being a bit critic-proof, but if it does open in New York, it's going to have to beat the odds to run very long. I, for one, think that's too bad. I hope it at least gets a chance to let the audience truly judge it for itself. By then, maybe the word will be out: If you aren't going to give it a chance, don't waste your money. It isn't for everybody, and I don't mean that in the highbrow or lowbrow sense. It ... just ... isn't ... for ... everybody. But if you go with an open mind, you might find yourself standing during the curtain call and saying, "What the hell do the critics know?"

BEAUTIFUL...Patrick will be missed...great show!


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