I Had the Time of My Life Hate-Watching ‘Dirty Dancing’
Send Baby back into the corner immediately. The new ‘Dirty Dancing’ musical paled in comparison to the 1987 classic. Not even Debra Messing breaking into song could save it.
Baby, I suspect, is cowering in the corner.
She must know, right? She must know how savagely critics are lugging watermelons at the new ABC remake of Dirty Dancing, because simple tomatoes just won’t do.
It was always a fool’s errand, remaking Dirty Dancing. Perhaps more than any of the dozens of classic film and musical retreads spreading across movie and TV screens like studio development venereal diseases, this one might be the most sacred.
It is iconic. It is Swayze. It is the dancing. It is the lift. It is a moment in time perfectly captured, nostalgia in its purest form, and, for an entire generation who watched Johnny and Baby fall in love, a sexual awakening—the cinematic version of a libido in bloom.
It’s not Grease or Hairspray or The Sound of Music, which we’re used to seeing in different incarnations with different levels of success and thus can forgive the bastardization. This is goddamn Dirty Dancing. Have some respect.
Yet here we are, with an endless three-hour filmed musical version of the 1987 masterpiece (don’t fight me on that). Abigail Breslin, the little girl from Little Miss Sunshine, is Baby, so buttoned up as to mask in this case any discernible personality. Newcomer Colt Prattes is Johnny Castle, a walking ab who took the character direction of “glare to seem macho” and, wow, really ran with it.
They are so bland (with the exception of Pratte’s relentless wide-eyed intensity suggesting he might be a serial killer) that an otherwise good-natured and maybe even cornily fun TV musical devolves into the crowning achievement of TV hatewatches.
The classic moments from the film are still there, in faint imitation. A whole lot of new plots and expanded characters are, too, and—you know what?—they’re almost uniformly great, if completely unnecessary.
Nicole Scherzinger is a revelation, digging into the part of Penny, the dancer who needs an abortion, with the gusto, grit, and sense of doom of someone who’d been asked to fill in for Anne Hathaway as Fantine in Les Miz at the last minute but wandered onto the set of Dirty Dancing instead. She is so good in her little part, full of spitfire energy and regret and full-throttle commitment to a wild New York accent.
Debra Messing gets an expanded arc as Baby’s mom, Marjorie. She’s depressed that her husband is ignoring her, that the fun and love has disappeared from their marriage. She tries everything to get his attention. She even sings him a sweet song at dinner one night. Marjorie just wants some loving.
The Will and Grace star is wonderful in a surprisingly fleshed out side plot that blessedly distracts from the mess that is any scene between Breslin and Prattes. In fact, in an alternate universe all those years ago, Messing might have made a great Baby, which is actually something that reflects in her performance—a yearning for the opportunities then that her daughter has now.
Modern Family star Sarah Hyland also makes enough of an impression as Baby’s sister, Lisa, to make you wonder why the hell she wasn’t cast as Baby—although the fact that she doesn’t sing “Hula Hana” is completely unforgivable.
Thanks to the supporting cast, there are bursts where you think, Could this actually have been good? Could it even have been amazing? If only Breslin’s Baby and Pratte’s Johnny didn’t doom this travesty to the most elaborate episode of Dancing With the Stars you’ve ever seen.
Even the soundtrack—“Mr. Postman,” “Be My Baby,” “Still of the Night”—is as infectious as ever, almost making this massacre on nostalgia bearable. But what ’60s girl group hit is worth the blood on Abigail Breslin’s hands?
Jennifer Grey’s Francis “Baby” Houseman was electric. Even her mousy awkwardness when we meet her sparked. Breslin has no spunk. Aside from frequently quoting The Feminine Mystique, she’s devoid of personality altogether.
When they do that mambo dance, in which Grey saunters between adorable, panicked, hilarious, and sexy—and Swayze is at his swoon-worthiest—Breslin and Prattes seem positively neutered, both of chemistry and of charisma.
There’s no sweat in this movie! Dirty Dancing is a summer dance film. It should perspire. The titular dirty dancing was so hot because it was sweaty and carnal and hormonal. Just like Swayze. Just like Grey. This is staged sexuality here, which has all the sensuality of cousins being cast as Romeo and Juliet in the high-school play.
Scherzinger gets it. Messing, in a role you wouldn’t imagine getting it, gets it. Hell, even Katey Sagal for some reason singing “Fever” midway through the musical gets it. But in the iconic dancing shoes of Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey in freaking Dirty Dancing, our leads do not get it.
The film is so faithful to the original in the scenes with Breslin and Prattes that it does them and the audience a huge disservice. There’s no thrill, as there might have been with other casting, in seeing a new generation reenergize this relationship. Metaphorically, they couldn’t do the lift.
The whole thing, then, becomes the made-for-TV version of all those ’90s actresses playing Roxie Hart on Broadway because they like karaoke and thought it would be fun: an exercise in showbiz narcissism; a shameless, meritless attention grab for an audience that, against its own will, can’t look away.
That this musical so majorly gets such substantial parts of its adaptation wrong is all the more concerning considering the menacing kickline of TV musicals dancing our way: Bye Bye Birdie, Rent, A Christmas Story, The Little Mermaid, and Jesus Christ Superstar.
Listen, for your average musical theater-loving gay like me, any TV musical is a great TV musical. I will watch with glee and applaud and jeer and scream and hiss and sing along and judge bitchily.
It is a major hoot to be in the midst of this time when an interest that seemed to be marginalized from the mainstream for some time is now considered one of the most viable—and therefore most produced—trends in entertainment. But it’s a half-empty/half-full situation.
It's like if your friends all thought you were sad and wanted to cheer you up so they got you a puppy, and you cry and are full of joy. So then they bring you another, and you’re like, "Double the happiness!" And then they bring you another, and another, and soon you’re just wallowing in a pile of dog shit and deafened by cacophonous yelps—overwhelmed by precious things that need a lot of love but, because there are so many of them, none of them are getting enough attention.
That’s sort of the snowball effect a theater fan might be experiencing with all these musicals. Joy escalating into panic and dread.
Still, there’s acknowledgment of a “something” that each of these previous entities brought to the endeavor—Grease Live! was a feat in live event directing, Hairspray Live! finally made star-casting work, and even the abominable Rocky Horror redux sparked conversation with Laverne Cox in the lead. Dirty Dancing doesn’t seem to have any reason to exist other than existing.
You watch these things out of love. I genuinely loved watching this. I loved watching Debra Messing in a musical. That is fun for a gay! And Nicole Scherzinger finally in a mainstream vehicle that shows off her talents? Also fun, at least for this gay.
But if you’re going to give a girl a watermelon, she damn better be able to carry its weight.