ABC is kicking off the summer TV season in a big way with the premiere of a musical remake of the classic 1987 movie Dirty Dancing. The special brought together a dynamic cast and features a number of big twists that will set it apart from the original in some distinctly fun new ways. That said, comparisons between this Dirty Dancing and the original are inevitable, and the remake falls short of what made the classic such a hit for the past 30 years.
The main story picks up in the early 1960s with Frances "Baby" Houseman (Abigail Breslin) traveling with her father Jake (Bruce Greenwood), her mother Marjorie (Debra Messing), and her sister Lisa (Sarah Hyland) to spend the last weeks of summer at a Catskills resort. The brainy Baby quickly finds herself enamored with the resort dance teacher Johnny Castle (Colt Prattes) and does what she can to try and help his dance partner Penny (Nicole Scherzinger) when she finds herself in a sticky situation. Things are changing a little too quickly for resort owner Max Kellerman (Tony Roberts) and band leader Tito (Billy Dee Williams), but not quite quickly enough for bungalow bunny Vivian Pressman (Katey Sagal). Marco (J. Quinton Johnson) has his eye on Lisa, who unfortunately has her eye on the waiter Robbie (Shane Harper). The whole group goes through experiences that will change their lives forever, and there will be plenty of singing along the way.
If you've seen the original 1987 movie, you pretty much already knew the big story beats of the TV special. The Baby/Johnny action follows the original pretty closely, with not too many deviations. Writer Jessica Sharzer does expand on many of the side characters from the original, and so the special goes in some unexpected and mostly wonderful directions that not everybody will expect. Director Wayne Blair does well in capturing the 1960s era, and his experience as director of musical projects shows with how he highlights the dancing. Special mention has to go to choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler (who is responsible for the choreography of Hamilton on Broadway), as he had to incorporate iconic dance moves with brand new numbers.
On the acting front, Abigail Breslin brings a sense of youthful inexperience to Baby that works quite well, although the age discrepancy between Baby and Johnny seems a bit iffier here than it did back in 1987. While Colt Prattes isn't exactly elderly as Johnny, and he brings a lot of energy to his dancing, his Johnny clearly has quite a few years on Baby.
Both leads do well enough with the material, although Breslin brings more nuance to her role and Prattes is quite obviously the more comfortable on the dance floor of the two. Still, these qualities do fit the characters, and there's not much to object to other than the facts that Abigail Breslin is not Jennifer Grey (who turned down a role in the remake) and Colt Prattes is not Patrick Swayze. Prattes does seem to be doing a Swayze impression in some of the key scenes. He's a decent actor and a solid dancer; he just lacks the presence of Patrick Swayze through no fault of his own, and he's much better when he takes the character in his own direction.
A standout performance comes from Debra Messing as Marjorie Hausman, who is given an emotional storyline that really showcases her without giving her huge chunks of the screentime. Sarah Hyland should definitely impress folks who only know her from Modern Family. As a Star Wars fan, I will admit to thinking of Billy Dee Williams as Tito Calrissian a few times due to that distinctive voice of his. He did strike an comfortable chemistry with Tony Roberts as Max that established their characters' long history together. Nicole Scherzinger was another standout as Penny, whose dancing is some of the most impressive of the entire special. She brought out a wonderful enthusiasm out of Abigail Breslin's Baby in their "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On" number, and rose to the occasion and handled the emotional material as well.
Some of the musical numbers work much better than others. Dirty Dancing is more of a Glee type of musical than a spectacular Broadway musical, especially due to the fact that the performances are covers of existing songs rather than originals. The singing works best when it captures the energy of the scenes, whether it's accompanying the frenetic "dirty dancing" that entrances Baby or the sultry singing of Vivian or the emotional ballad from Marjorie.
The numbers that could really do without singing are unfortunately two of the most iconic scenes from the original movie: "Love Is Strange" and the climactic "I've Had The Time Of My Life." Neither was exactly ruined by the singing, but the singing did make it somewhat harder to focus on the dancing and the development, and I found myself falling back on comparisons to the original during these scenes.
Interestingly, the most dynamic musical performer of the cast might be J. Quinton Johnson as Marco. He has a charisma on camera that really works for some of the most energetic songs, especially "Love Man," which is one of the very first major songs of the entire special. If "Love Man" had been a flop, it could have set a negative tone for the rest of the songs. On the opposite end of the singing spectrum, I could have gone my whole life without watching Bruce Greenwood burst into song and been perfectly happy.
Now, as a fan of the original Dirty Dancing, I have to say that the TV special falls short of recapturing the magic of the classic. The chemistry between the leads generally lacks the sizzle -- both antagonistically and romantically -- that Jennifer Grey and Patrick Swayze brought as Baby and Johnny, although Abigail Breslin and Colt Prattes were never going to be Jennifer Grey and Patrick Swayze 2.0. Abigail Breslin never really hits the dance moves that movie fans might expect. Some of the big dance numbers were disappointing in comparison to the originals, partly due to the need to incorporate singing with the fast-paced movement. That said, the special does excel at filling in the blanks for characters other than Baby and Johnny, and the final scene gives a sense of closure that was lacking from the 1987 film's ending.
At the end of the day, Dirty Dancing isn't the most remarkable musical ever to hit the small screen, and it won't go down as one of the classics. This new Dirty Dancing is an energetic way to get ready for summer in a way that will have you tapping your toes, and it brings all the swirling skirts and thrusting hips that we could have hoped for out of a TV special.
Dirty Dancing premieres on Wednesday, May 24 at 8 p.m. ET on ABC. Stay tuned to CinemaBlend for the latest in TV news, and don't forget to check out our summer TV premiere schedule to discover all your viewing options now and in the coming weeks. Be sure to drop by our rundowns for cable/streaming and broadcast TV renewals and cancellations as well. Our TV season finale schedule can give you all you need to know about your shows ending.