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‘Dirty Dancing’: If Baby doesn’t sing, is it still a musical?

Chicago Tribune


Don’t cry for “Dirty Dancing—The Classic Story on Stage.”

Baby and Johnny out-sold “Wicked” and “Jersey Boys” in Chicago during the week of Oct. 6-12, pulling down an impressive $993,540 at the box office of the Cadillac Palace Theatre, according to figures published in Variety.

And by Tuesday of last week, a week when decidedly mediocre reviews hit this and other newspapers and Web sites, the latest big show to hit the Chicago boards had already passed the $1 million mark in weekly sales.

Recession? Clearly, Chicagoans still want to see Baby break out of her corner. Even if she doesn’t sing.

“Dirty Dancing,” which originated abroad, will play Chicago, its first U.S. engagement, through January. Boston is next. Then Los Angeles. Then, probably next fall, Broadway.

A spokesman for the show said he couldn’t confirm the Broadway engagement but noted that the show is proceeding according to its original plan and that the creative team is very happy with how things had gone in Chicago.

The show, has done very well in several countries and is unlikely to change much now. No matter what American critics have to say.

The “Dirty Dancing” phenomenon takes some figuring out.

The show is unusual because it’s not a traditional musical but an explicit stage re-creation of the movie that uses mostly prerecorded music. Minor characters sing from time to time, but the stars don’t (as they did not in the 1987 movie). The show doesn’t camp up the movie—on the contrary, “Dirty Dancing” takes the coming-of-age tale in the Catskills very seriously, even adding to its subplot involving the civil rights movement.

Actors who look very much like the actors who played the same roles in the movie speak lines mostly taken from the movie.

There are moments of genuine artistry—many from Britta Lazenga, the former Joffrey dancer who plays Penny. For anyone used to the rules of legitimate musicals, the show is nothing short of baffling.

Why doesn’t Baby sing about, say, her first sexual experience or the feeling of being a dancer? Why is the theatrical environment digitized so it almost looks like a movie on the stage? Why are the most prosaic movie scenes re-created in such expensive detail? Why are there no full, legitimate dance numbers, just cinematic snatches of dance, as is in the film?

What the heck is this thing anyway? And why do so many people seem to love it?

In part, the show’s free-wheeling style reflects its genesis in Australia and London, where producers and audiences take their musicals much less seriously. London’s West End may have given birth to noble Shakespearean revivals and such legitimate musicals as “Les Miserables” and “The Phantom of the Opera,” but its theaters also accommodate many much looser entertainments that don’t owe very much to Broadway traditions and are more rooted in pop-culture nostalgia.

Along with “Dirty Dancing” (which still does huge business in London), there’s also “We Will Rock You,” a show featuring the music of Queen. Nobody dared bring that show to Broadway—”We Will Rock You” made its debut in Las Vegas in a production so eye-poppingly bad by traditional theatrical standards, it even shocked Sin City.

Yet “We Will Rock You” still does very nicely in the U.K.

It’s not alone. The British public eagerly awaits the spring arrival of “Priscilla, Queen of the Desert: The Musical,” an entertainment based on the camp movie of the same name. Like “Dirty Dancing,” that one comes from Australia too.

In the U.S., where the artistry of musicals is studied in universities and taken more to heart, such entertainments tend to be confined to arenas, low-grade cable networks and Vegas casinos. Had this version of “Dirty Dancing” toured to the Allstate Arena or the United Center, it likely would have been treated as an entertainment novelty and reviewed as such. But even Vegas is no longer an obvious repository for pop-culture schlock. Shows there must now compete with the high-end Cirque du Soleil, whose latest original project, opening later this month at the Luxor Hotel, involves the magician Criss Angel, multiple millions of dollars and an attempt to fuse the arts of circus and magic. Baby would struggle to compete with that.

So “Dirty Dancing” is using the infrastructure of touring Broadway. And that’s why it seems so strange.

But the popularity of “Dirty Dancing” suggests that the golden rules of musicals—those hallowed criteria of originality, live artistry, fresh scores and integration of disparate elements—might matter a lot more to critics and serious aficionados of the form than they do to the public at large. To large swaths of the public, “Dirty Dancing” does exactly what they want it to do.

So there you have it. Commercial theater is always a dance with the populist devil. Broadway long ago figured out that audiences like to go to the theater and relive their favorite musicals. It is happy to take their money. “Dirty Dancing” merely takes things to their logical extreme. Quite well, really.

Panic not. Serious musical theater will survive.