Dirty Dancing, starring Jennifer Grey as Baby and Patrick Swayze as Johnny, is one of the 1980s most iconic films. Set in a time of social and economic turmoil, the film explored themes from coming-of-age to class strife. Now, the stage version of the worldwide smash-hit—The Classic Story On Stage—is coming to the Tennessee Performing Arts Center’s (TPAC) Andrew Jackson Hall for a limited, one-week engagement from September 22-27.
Dirty Dancing transports audiences to the summer of 1963, when 17-year-old Frances ‘Baby’ Houseman was vacationing in New York’s Catskill Mountains with her older sister and parents. Breaking class boundaries and fraternizing with the staff, Baby discovers a world she couldn’t have imagined. Racy dance moves and pounding rhythms–especially as interpreted by Johnny Castle, the resort’s sexy dance instructor—ignite Baby’s passion and changers her life forever.
The stage version of the story, Dirty Dancing–The Classic Story On Stage, was born out of an eight-week staged workshop in Manhattan in the fall of 2001. “As I learned how many people watched the movie over and over and over, I began to think that what they really wanted was to share more intensely in the event, to step through the screen and be there while the story was happening,” said Eleanor Bergstein, screenwriter of the film Dirty Dancing. “And if that was true, then its natural form was the theatre – audiences watching live bodies dancing here and now in the present – on the log, on the bridge, on the dance floor and in the staff quarters at Kellerman’s.”
Dirty Dancing–The Classic Story On Stage brings all the best elements of the original story to the stage: heart-pounding music, passionate romance, and sensational dancing. It also brings new life to songs that the movie immortalized, including the hit songs “Hungry Eyes,” “Hey Baby,” “Do You Love Me?,” and the heart-stopping “(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life.” With its emphasis on dancing and a new focus on live singing demands a multitalented cast.
Gillian Abbott, a recent Juilliard dance graduate who studied acting independently and is taking voice lessons from fellow cast members, plays the lead character, Baby. Abbott first saw the film with her older sister and her friend when she was eight. “I remember loving the dancing, and I remember closing my eyes for parts that I didn’t think I was supposed to be watching,” she recalled, laughing. “But I didn’t really go back and watch the film again until I had an appointment to audition for Baby. It was then that I really fell in love with the story and characters.”
“I’ve been really lucky to work closely with Eleanor Bergstein, who wrote the original script and our show,” Abbott said. “I got to get the same direction on the character that Jennifer Grey would have gotten, and she really encouraged me to build my own Baby from the inside out rather than trying to put Jennifer Grey on me. Otherwise it would have been intimidating to try to fill Jennifer Grey’s shoes. Eleanor won’t even let me watch the film anymore!”
Bergstein’s stage version of the show goes further than the movie, too. “Writing it for the stage,” Bergstein said. “I was also able to add more Baby and Johnny scenes, more about the family, more songs I couldn’t afford last time, and, most exciting of all—more dancing.” Abbott says that nearly two thirds of the show is actually new material, including a lot of live singing rather than having records playing in the background.
Some of the changes Bergstein made should make the story resonate even more strongly with LGBT audiences. “Civil rights was in the background of the film. One thing that’s added to the stage play is an explicit through-line about civil rights,” said Rashaan James II, one of the “dirty dancers” and a member of the ensemble. “There’s something to care about above and beyond the love story of Johnny and Baby, something socially pertinent happening. People are going to come see the show because the film was near and dear to them but they’re going to get something more out of it.”
For James, the film made an important personal impact, and he believes the show will bring that to new audiences. “I watched the movie growing up like any other young, aspiring dancer would. I really loved the film because it was one of those movies that gave permission for boys to dance. Being a young man in school and having Patrick Swayze be who he was in this movie gave permission for it to be cool to dance, that it can be masculine. My dance teacher was obsessed with Patrick Swayze as well, so there was a six-foot life size cut-out of Swayze standing at the top of the stairs in our studio.”
“One of my favorite things about Baby,” Abbott said, “is that she stands up for other people’s rights. Of course in 1963, that was civil rights, and I think today that resonates with the struggles with civil rights that are still going on, rights across the board, including sexual rights. I think it’s a really empowering story.” So if your eyes are hungry to see this classic American story reinterpreted through a new, deeper lens, Dirty Dancing—The Classic Story On Stage may be just the show for you!
Dirty Dancing—The Classic Story On Stage is the first production featured in the 2015-16 HCA/TriStar Health Broadway at TPAC season. For more information on the show and tour, see us.dirtydancingontour.com. To purchase tickets for the Nashville performance, visit TPAC.org, or call (615) 782-4040.