Trying to Remember

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This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk.

Two very successful show-biz brand names were re-launched in Los Angeles last week. Both titles, in their original incarnations, were simple stories, told with a little song and dance that evoked the early 1960’s. Incidentally, both also starred the late, great Jerry Orbach.

The first of these was Dirty Dancing. Dirty Dancing, the movie, appeared in 1987. It was a modestly budgeted film where Orbach plays the father of a girl who learns about life and dancing at a Catskills resort. This coming of age story was nice, but what audiences really responded to were Patrick Swayze’s pecs, some hot dancing and a multi-platinum soundtrack.

The movie became a huge sensation and is still quite popular today, so it was only a matter of time before it became a stage show. Well, it has, and after runs in Australia and London, Dirty Dancing, the stage version, has come home to Hollywood.

It arrives at the Pantages Theater with an elaborate subtitle: instead of Dirty Dancing: The Musical, it’s called Dirty Dancing: The Classic Story on Stage.

This is important because, the original screenwriter, Eleanor Bernstein, and her director James Powell, have not created a Broadway-style musical. Instead, they’ve simply re-created everything in the movie on stage. It’s weird, its almost as if they think that DVD’s or cable don’t exist and that the original negative of the film was lost; so Bernstein feels its her job to recreate the original experience for us, sort of like an Egyptologist recreating a Pharaoh’s tomb.

There’s nothing that’s really new. No original show tunes, it’s just Dirty Dancing being acted out on stage, often with the original music. So, during the rehearsal scenes, we hear the Eric Carmen recording of “Hungry Eyes” and the show at Sheldrake’s looks exactly the same, down to the choreography, even the color of the curtain. They even recreate the iconic scene of Johnny Castle teaching Baby how to balance in the middle of glassy lake at magic hour, albeit without any real water.

It’s not surprising that a big, bloated stage adaptation of the movie has lots of technical bells and whistles — Steven Brimson Lewis’ set looks very impressive and very expensive — but what surprised me is that for a stage show, it’s so reliant on video projection. Not just in how the video renders mountain roads and golf courses, but that the production sometimes uses video projections of people dancing, as if the 17-person dance corps was not enough. My question: if Dirty Dancing: The Classic Story On Stage is augmenting the live cast with video dancers, why not just show a 35mm print of the original movie?

fantasticks.jpg The other recreation of a smash success that opened here last week is The Fantasticks, which famously ran for forty-two years Off-Broadway at the Sullivan Street Playhouse. Here, in this revival by Reprise Theater Company, the part of El Gallo (created by Jerry Orbach) is played by Eric McCormick. Jason Alexander is the director and like the creative team behind Dirty Dancing, he feels the need to amp up the production values of a proven hit. The long-running original production of The Fantasticks featured just a piano and a harp; here Alexander employs a nine-person orchestra, as well as lots of stagy flourishes. In the cast, only Barry Dennen, as Henry, The Old Actor, really connects with the old-fashioned material. Instead of a 19th-century masque, Alexander’s treatment recalls 20th century vaudeville or burlesque. There are a number of magic tricks and illusions, most of which are well played, but Alexander and his cast (and the Dirty Dancing creators as well) seem unaware that the real magic of their successful shows, lies not in spectacle but the simple connection between actors and music. All that’s needed — and sadly missing in both these productions — is for the audience to really believe that these characters really want, no need, to sing and dance.

The Fantasticks runs through Sunday at the Freud Playhouse; Dirty Dancing continues at the Pantages Theatre through June 28.

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.

Banner image: Josef Brown and Britta Lazenga in Dirty Dancing. Photo: David Scheinmann