You will not have the time of your life watching ABC’s “Dirty Dancing” musical. It is neither good nor deliciously bad. It is a banal, three-hour time-suck that manages to feel both rushed and drawn out.
“Dirty Dancing” was a box-office hit in 1987, and its enduring popularity has spawned a stage musical, a cheesy Cuba-based prequel and the adoration of multiple generations. “Dirty Dancing” oozes nostalgia, not least because it’s an ’80s movie set in the ’60s. But a remake will always be a tall order.
The adaptation, which will air Wednesday, was pre-taped, unlike recent musicals such as Fox’s “Grease” and NBC’s “Hairspray Live.” Abigail Breslin stars as Frances “Baby” Houseman, the bookish 18-year-old who falls in love with a suave dance instructor while vacationing with her family at a resort in the Catskills. Colt Prattes, who starred in the Las Vegas production of “Rock of Ages,” plays Johnny Castle, the role made famous by Patrick Swayze.
Breslin nabbed an Oscar nomination at just 10 years of age for her assured performance in “Little Miss Sunshine,” and Prattes is a gifted dancer. But they don’t have a tenth of the chemistry that Swayze had with Jennifer Grey. That on-screen connection was the driving force of the original film. Stripped of that, Baby and Johnny appear to just be going through the motions.
Even Baby’s close-knit relationship with her father, Jake (Bruce Greenwood), feels less authentic. To be fair, the late Jerry Orbach left big shoes to fill. But Baby’s teary-eyed confrontation with her father over his judgment of working-class Johnny always made me sob. Here? Meh.
“Dirty Dancing” sticks pretty close to the script – the biggest twist merely provides an unnecessary justification for the movie’s musical format, which includes cast renditions of “(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life” and “Do You Love Me,” in addition to covers of “Hungry Eyes” (by Greyson Chance) and “Hey! Baby” (by Lady Antebellum). Johnny still gets falsely accused of stealing after blowing off “bungalow bunny” Vivian Pressman (Katey Sagal). And his dance partner Penny, played by singer and “X Factor” judge Nicole Scherzinger with an unplaceable tri-state-area accent, still gets an illegal abortion that puts her health in danger. The story line, controversial in the late 1980s, offers muted social commentary.
But in the sometimes-awkward tradition of network musicals, the TV movie makes ham-handed attempts to update the story in more overt, socially conscious ways. Baby and her sister, Lisa (“Modern Family’s” Sarah Hyland), have an ongoing dialogue about whether women can have it all. This time around, Lisa is quicker to ditch Robbie (Shane Harper), the sleazy, Ivy League-bound waiter, leaving her free to pursue a forbidden romance with Marco (“Hamilton’s” J. Quinton Johnson), a piano player in the Kellerman Lodge house band. Marco, who is black, is warned by bandleader Tito (Billy Dee Williams) to “leave the little white girls alone.”
In the end, Lisa asks Marco to join her onstage at the end-of-the-summer talent show, where they sing a saccharine cover of Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right.” (At least we’re spared Lisa’s shrill rendition of “Hula Hana.”) The performance leaves Tito and Max, the lodge’s owner, to muse that times are a changin’ and that’s a good thing! This must be what the musical’s website means when it says that the remake tackles “social themes like race.”
If there’s anything to be savored here, it’s Debra Messing’s turn as Baby’s mother, who isn’t as content to be a housewife and challenges her husband’s lack of attention. But the musical isn’t about Marjorie Houseman (though maybe it should be). Ultimately, this “Dirty Dancing” remake amounts to an epic jumble of misused talents. Random musical outbursts only make it worse.
By the time Johnny bursts into the performance hall to proclaim that “nobody puts Baby in a corner,” you might well wish that somebody had.
“Dirty Dancing” (three hours) airs at 6 p.m. MDT Wednesday on ABC.