It’s been 30 years since audiences first fell in love with Frances “Baby” Houseman and Johnny Castle’s love story set at Kellerman’s resort in the summer of ‘63. I’m of course referring to the one and only Dirty Dancing starring Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey. When it comes to a movie as beloved as this quintessential ‘80s classic, one questions why ABC would bother remaking it. I’ve seen many clever social media comments in the months leading up to the network premiere saying such things as, “Without Swayze? No wayze.”
How can you have Dirty Dancing without Swayze and Grey? We’ve seen it done before – a la the failed television series in the ‘80s or the lackluster 2004 sequel Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights. The star of the ABC remake – Abigail Breslin – wasn’t even born yet when Swayze and Grey were first making hearts go pitter-patter in 1987, and her co-star Colt Prattes was less than a year old. However, Prattes has admitted he grew up admiring the original and Swayze’s iconic dance moves. So, what can die-hard Dirty Dancing fans expect of this made-for-TV remake? Expect it to remain fairly faithful to the original but with a few twists worthy of Chubby Checker along the way.
Let’s start by discussing the network’s casting. Prattes is an inspired choice for Johnny Castle, though we all know and agree that nobody will ever be able to fill Swayze’s shoes. Prattes manages to make the character his own in that he gives him a slightly more believable Brooklynesque accent and street cred as a former juvenile delinquent capable of hotwiring cars and perhaps more. He’s certainly handsome and a talented dancer/singer, although his mannerisms remind me more of Jeff Conaway’s Kenickie in Grease than Swayze’s Johnny (not that that’s entirely a bad thing, but it relegates him to sidekick status instead of leading man material in my mind). However, I predict a surge in his career after this role.
Breslin is probably a more believable bookish virgin in comparison to Grey, but she lacks that special quality that Grey brought to the performance. As a result, I found myself less than impressed by their chemistry together. And could they have given her a frumpier wardrobe? I really don’t think so. I know Baby transforms during this coming of age tale, but Grey was given much cuter clothes and accessories.
Baby’s parents – Jake and Marjorie Houseman – are given a whole lotta backstory in this version, so much so that their love story nearly eclipses that of Baby’s and Johnny’s. I will always prefer the late, great Jerry Orbach over Bruce Greenwood as Baby’s loving but misguided father, but I thought Debra Messing brought a lot to the role of Baby’s mother. Who knew this couple was fighting so hard to save their marriage in this last-ditch effort at a normal family vacation in the same place that this couple once fell in love? And what woman hasn’t felt like Marjorie at least once in a relationship with a man? Their crumbling marriage was one of the trainwreck aspects that made this remake watchable for me.
Neil Kellerman (Trevor Einhorn – who it turns out played Dr. Frasier Crane’s son Frederick on the ‘90s sitcom) and Lisa Houseman (Modern Family’s Sarah Hyland) are both far less annoying in this reboot world. Don’t get me wrong, Neil’s still no Johnny, but he actually listens to Baby and encourages her to pursue her dreams without sounding quite as patronizing or as gratingly one-dimensional as Lonny Price’s Neil. This Neil has read “The Feminine Mystique” and is an ardent fan. Hyland portrays the perfect Lisa, although expect this Lisa to be more than just a pretty face. Baby manages to get through to her older sister with her feminist thinking and Lisa even gets to flirt with Marco (the adorable J. Quinton Johnson) in an “interracial dating in the early ‘60s is still seen as taboo” subplot.
Nicole Scherzinger does some really lovely things when seen dancing with Prattes because she’s such a fantastic dancer, but she doesn’t make you feel quite as sympathetic for her character Penny as Cynthia Rhodes did in the original. And arguably, the abortion aspect that was such a huge part of the original story doesn’t seem quite as central to this version. It’s still there, but it’s definitely downplayed for TV.
Other interesting cast standouts are Katey Sagal as “bungalow bunny” Vivian Pressman, veteran actor Tony Roberts as Max Kellerman and Star Wars’ Billy Dee Williams as the resort’s bandleader Tito. A brilliant showcase for her seductive siren-like qualities, Sagal brings Vivian to life in a sizzling rendition of “Fever” that is hands-down one of the best additions. It was far more enjoyable than many of the other rehashed scenes and characters.
All the familiar elements of the original Dirty Dancing are still present in ABC’s remake, from memorable lines about carrying watermelons and spaghetti arms down to the log/lake scene, the euphoric lift at the end and that unparalleled soundtrack, although it’s of course been modernized. I think the song that continues to work best is “Hungry Eyes” as sung by Greyson Chance. That’s always been my favorite and this version somehow manages to capture the spirit of the ‘80s far better than anything else. Out of curiosity, I looked up the soundtrack and that’s Lady Antebellum covering “Hey Baby”, Bea Miller doing “Be My Baby”, Seal crooning “Cry to Me”, American Authors covering “Wipe Out” and Calum Scott singing “She’s Like the Wind”. It’s a far cry from the original but still decent.
And now for the biggest spoilers about the remake, so fair warning about reading ahead. What I thought were the most unnecessary things aside from remaking this beloved classic in the first place are the clumsy bookend opening and ending scenes in which we see Baby taking in “Dirty Dancing: The Musical” in 1975 New York City. Who hasn’t yearned for an epic epilogue to this story? When it comes to a love as dizzyingly powerful as that of Baby and Johnny, I want to believe that it can defy all odds and last forever. But it seems that is not the case. Damn you, ABC, for toying with my childhood. Nobody puts Baby in a corner, especially not Johnny!