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Baby returns in ‘Dirty Dancing’ remake. But maybe she should have stayed in that corner

Colt Prattes as Johnny Castle and Abigail Breslin as Baby Houseman in ABC's "Dirty Dancing," premiering May 24.
(Guy D’Alema / ABC)
Television Critic

If we’ve learned anything from history, it’s that hard times call for easy, escapist entertainment. So musicals haters, brace yourselves.

Hot off the inescapable popularity of “La La Land” comes ABC’s “Dirty Dancing,” a musical reboot of the 1987 film starring Jennifer Grey and Patrick Swayze. (Not to be confused with the 2004 theatrical adaptation “Dirty Dancing— The Classic Story on Stage.”)

If only it were good enough to take us out of our heads for an evening instead of reminding us why everything was better before, even cheesy dance movies.

The challenge with choosing this particular film is that it’s a source of nostalgia — both silly and sentimental — for a huge swath of Americans in their 30s and 40s. While the same could be said of other musicals adapted for television on other networks, “Dirty Dancing” occupies a singular space between corny and romantic, ridiculous and revered.

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When the movie was released as part of a dance film trend that included “Footloose” and “Flashdance,” it tweaked the usual Hollywood formula by making its everyday protagonist a girl and the hot, sexy pursuit a guy. Coupled with high-energy dance numbers, it struck a chord. (Just try and find someone who came of age in the ’80s who can’t recite at least one line from the film: “Nobody puts Baby in a corner!”)

The same cannot be said of the three-hour ABC remake, airing Wednesday.

Abigail Breslin (“Little Miss Sunshine,” “Scream Queens”) is a sweet and likable Frances “Baby” Houseman, but looks utterly lost during the dance routines – even when Baby’s supposed to have mastered the numbers for the big performance.

Newcomer Colt Prattes, who plays bad boy dance instructor Johnny Castle, makes up for it by dancing circles around Breslin, but the two have no chemistry. Those longing glances at one another are more like quizzical blank stares, as if they’re waiting for inspiration from one another.

The story is similar to that of the film, except it’s framed by an adult Baby’s visit to a Broadway theater in the 1970s to see a musical called “Dirty Dancing.” It stirs memories of that summer in ’63 when she vacationed with her family at Kellerman’s Lodge in New York’s Catskill Mountains.

The majority of the film is a flashback to that time, when she met Johnny, a rogue figure with an air of danger — and really good hair. But when she falls for him, she challenges her parents’ idea of her as the baby of the family. Eventually, after a few steamy dance numbers and innuendo-filled scenes in Johnny’s cabin, she emerges a woman.

Costars here include Bruce Greenwood and Debra Messing as Baby’s parents Dr. Jake and Marjorie Houseman, Sarah Hyland of “Modern Family” as sister Lisa and former Pussycat Doll Nicole Scherzinger as Penny, the other dance instructor, the one who gets in “trouble.”

Updates to the plot mean there’s an interracial flirtation between Lisa and a black performer who works at the camp and marital problems between Baby’s parents.

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“Dirty Dancing” is the latest offering in a slew of singing and dancing network specials over the last several years.

NBC featured live productions of “Peter Pan,” “The Sound of Music,” “The Wiz” and “Hairspray” (stay tuned for “Jesus Christ Superstar”). Fox produced “Grease Live!” and “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.”

It’s now ABC’s turn to enter the dance party.

“Dirty Dancing” has a skilled choreographer in Andy Blankenbuehler (a two-time Tony-winner for “Hamilton” and “In the Heights”), and his presence can be felt when the camp staff, Prattes and Scherzinger dance rollicking numbers sans the other stars.

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There are also more suggestive moves here — lots of grinding and gyrating — than 30 years ago. What else could they do in the wake of Beyoncé?

It’s just Breslin and Prattes who barely get off the ground, in the most literal of senses. Her iconic leap into his up-stretched arms? It’s so strained it appears more like a function of gritted teeth and prayer than a triumphant moment powered by young love. As for their other dance scenes — they’re strategically shot to avoid showing too much foot movement.

The singing, however, adds a pleasant levity to “Dirty Dancing,” even when not pitch perfect.

Messing and Greenwood each do solo renditions of the Gershwin standard “They Can’t Take That Away From Me,” and Katey Sagal (who plays a predatory divorcee) does a duet of “Fever” with Prattes. British singer Calum Scott bravely covers Swayze’s hit “She’s Like the Wind.”

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But overall, the new version of “Dirty Dancing” never finds its footing.

Perhaps it would have been better to leave Baby back in that corner in 1987. Now she must not only dance but sing while competing with the legacy of a film that’s become part of America’s collective DNA.

‘Dirty Dancing’

Where: ABC

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When: 8 p.m. Wednesday

Rating: TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children)

lorraine.ali@latimes.com

@lorraineali

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