Much of the story and structural integrity can be credited to playwright Eleanor Bergstein, who also wrote the screenplay. Virtually all of the musical follows the film beat by beat. This works especially well in Act I, where Baby’s dance training montage drives the plot. Act II slows down with extra scenes — mostly original to the stage production — that feel more like padding to justify the intermission.
As Baby, Abbott is impressively agile and convincingly young looking. It’s tricky to pretend to be bad at something when you’re not. But Abbott smoothly transitions within one song from stumbling amateur to semi-pro. She also shares genuine chemistry with costar Tierney. Despite unavoidable comparisons to Patrick Swayze, Tierney captures the bad boy animal charisma of the character — and has the dance moves to match.
While Tierney delivers all of his dance scenes with Abbott flawlessly, he really gets to shine with Jenny Winton as fellow dance instructor and the token “girl in trouble,” Penny Johnson. Their impressive routine can be credited to the show’s multiple choreographers: Kate Champion, Michele Lynch and Craig Wilson. But the moves also include nods to the film’s choreographer, Kenny Ortega. Like the film, the stage choreography is unapologetically erotic. Legs split and fly in the air, and hips gyrate and grind like a PG 13-rated Kama Sutra.
Other technical elements, like projection screens, keep scenes moving swiftly. Instead of flying in cumbersome backdrops, digital screens flip from indoor and outdoor settings, instantly transitioning from grassy fields to sweaty night clubs. Similarly, the music incorporates pre-recorded songs with the live band. Songs like Otis Redding’s “These Arms of Mine” (from the film soundtrack), would not sound the same with a house band. Instead, the production maintains the vintage ambiance by imitating the sound of classic vinyl played over a transistor radio.
Overall, the production pays homage to the film without giving the sense that it’s just cashing in on nostalgia. Director James Powell’s staging feels obvious and natural. Some scenes, like Baby standing up to her father, actually play more powerfully than in the film. For once, the show’s tagline may be accurate: You might have the time of your life.
7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 11-Thursday, Nov. 12; 8 p.m. Friday, Nov. 13; 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 14; 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 15. Tickets start at $38. Wharton Center 750 E. Shaw Lane, East Lansing (517) 432- 2000, whartoncenter.com