REVIEW: ‘Dirty Dancing’ speedily delivers 80s-era nostalgia

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If you’re looking for just the hits, the Denver Center’s whirlwind production of “Dirty Dancing” delivers on all of the best scenes from the cult 80s coming-of-age movie starring Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey.

"Dirty Dancing" at the Buell Theatre in Denver. (Photo courtesy of DCPA)There’s, of course, the watermelon scene where Frances “Baby” Houseman first stumbles into the working-class world of dancers and staff who mostly serve as playthings for well-to-do families vacationing at Kellerman’s, a Jewish resort in the Catskills in the 1960s. There’s the scene in the middle of the woods where the dreamy, other-side-of-the-tracks dance instructor  Johnny Castle helps Baby practice her routine via balancing on a log, and the one where they practice lifts in the water and things get a lot more fun than your typical dance lesson.

But the show, especially the first half, speeds through the plot, and sometimes it feels more like watching a montage from the original movie rather than a tale of well-choreographed love between people from two completely different worlds. Baby is a high school graduate who is planning to join the Peace Corps, and Johnny is a poor dance instructor whose talent and passion mostly gets wasted on bored, wealthy women who want to ogle him and stuff diamonds in his pockets while he survives on jujubes.

Jerome Harmann-Hardeman, who plays the resort’s band leader Tito Suarez,  saves much of the show’s stilted pacing with his energetic renditions of songs such as “Love Man.”

Gillian Abbot is a convincing and endearing Baby and nails the aesthetic in her high-waisted jorts and her frizzy, curly hair, emblematic of the 17-year-old Jewish New Yorker played in the 1987 film by the pre-plastic surgery Grey.

Christopher Tierney, who plays dreamy Johnny Castle, definitely manages to craft a swoon-worthy presence and goes as far as to nail the Swayze accent from the original film.

“Dirty Dancing” is, in many ways, a film about Jewish culture: Baby’s dad as a doctor, the inevitable hooking up that happens at all Jewish summer camps, the parents’ disapproval for lusting after the Goy rebel when all your parents want you to do is date that nice Jewish boy from Yale who is majoring in hotel management.

Baby’s parents, played by Mark Elliot Wilson and Alex Scolari come off — by no fault of their own, really — as kind of wishy washy and WASP-y. But what the show lacks in pace and overdoes in Goy, it makes up for in the most important part: Dancing.

It’s hard not to smile when Johnny tells Baby to watch her “spaghetti arms” and to hold her “dance space.” And it’s equally endearing when the two leads finally nail the dance lift at the end of the show and we get to hear our favorite phrase of all time for all women, everywhere: “Nobody puts Baby in the corner.”

“Dirty Dancing” runs through Jan. 31 at the Buell Theatre at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts. For tickets,  go to denvercenter.org. Tickets start at $30.

Writer’s note: Rachel Sapin grew up as one of the few Jews in a primarily Goy (at the time) Arvada suburb. She has experience with the subject of Jews at summer camp through her many summers spent falling in and out of love at Denver’s beloved Maurice B. Shwayder Camp of Temple Emanuel as a youth.