Baby and Johnny still having time of their lives

Tim Smith
Contact ReporterThe Baltimore Sun
Nobody puts "Dirty Dancing" in the corner, not when this stage version of the movie is packing in audiences.

It was supposed to be a flop. For that matter, the odds were against it being made in the first place. But "Dirty Dancing," with its paltry budget of about $5 million and shortage of proven stars, went on to become a hit when released to movie theaters in 1987, eventually taking in around $214 million worldwide.

Something about the film's variation on the boy-meets-girl scenario struck a chord. Set in 1963, the plot finds a young woman nicknamed Baby (played by Jennifer Grey) vacationing with her well-off family at a Catskills resort, where she falls for a sexy working-class type, Johnny, resident dance instructor (the Patrick Swayze role).

What made the chord strike even harder with audiences was a soundtrack of mostly golden oldies that jumped out with fresh appeal.

Almost three decades after the movie appeared, another version of "Dirty Dancing," this one subtitled "The Classic Story On Stage," is chalking up equally impressive results. First performed in Australia in 2004, it traveled to a few other continents.

On Tuesday, the theatrical reincarnation of the movie will rock and merengue its way into Baltimore's Hippodrome as part of a national tour. The one big place this "Dirty Dancing" has not played yet is the Great White Way.

"Usually, you start in New York in hope of getting a world tour after," said Eleanor Bergstein, who wrote both the film and the stage show and plans to attend a performance in Baltimore. "I decided to do it the other way. The show has been to six or seven countries. Broadway will be at the end of it all."

The production joins a growing list of film-to-stage musicals that includes another 1980s hit with a storyline also involving sensual bodies with well-choreographed feet — "Flashdance." But there's a significant twist.

The routine formula includes having characters sing to each other, a la traditional stage musicals. But Baby and Johnny do not turn into Tony and Maria from "West Side Story."

"Having someone singing in Johnny's bed would be ridiculous," Bergstein said

Samuel Pergande, who plays Johnny in the touring production, agrees.

"The film is so iconic," he said. "Having the characters sing would take away from that. There are so many lines people want to hear — 'Nobody puts Baby in a corner'; 'I carried a watermelon.'"

The normal procedure of adapting a movie for the musical stage also involves adding newly composed songs to the score. Not so for "Dirty Dancing."

"I couldn't imagine an original score for the show," Bergstein said. "Music is so tied with memory you can't separate the two. I picked all those songs from my own record collection when I did the movie, and I wanted them for the stage version, too."

Sometimes, though, Bergstein insisted on recorded music.

"I needed those scratchy old records for scenes in Johnny's room," she said. "I had to have Otis Redding's voice."

Bergstein's concern for fitting the music to her story with just the right tone is nothing new. When, after many a rejection, she finally found a film studio willing to back "Dirty Dancing," she still had to negotiate her way around a roadblock dealing with the songs.

Producers insisted on using contemporary imitators of the likes of the Fours Seasons, the Drifters, the Shirelles and other artists she had selected for the soundtrack. Bergstein balked.

"They told me if I could tell that five out of the 11 were imitations, they would use the originals," she said. "I listened to all my old records that night, trying to memorize even the orchestrations. I came in the next morning very tense. They had a done a good job; the orchestrations were identical. But I still nailed 11 out of 11."

Bergstein got her songs, plus a couple of fresh ones that were added. She objected to the new material, but did advocate for '60s-style arrangements to make them fit in a little more. One of the additions, "(I've Had) The Time of My Life," proved to have catnip powers with the public. And the rest is motion picture history.

"People still love the story and feel like they're watching the film live when they see this show," Pergande said. "It was that way when I did it a few years ago in the West End [London's theater district] as well. The reaction everywhere I've been is very similar."

That the "Dirty Dancing" movie ended up winning so many ardent, lasting fans took Bergstein by surprise.

"It was amazing to me that more than 10 people not related to me by blood saw it," she said. "No one supported the movie, except this wonderful audience around the world. And I resisted whenever someone said it should be made into a stage musical. My attitude was the movie stands on its own."

But then Bergstein received reports of various TV stations giving marathon, back-to-back showings of the film, and attracting viewers who actually watched it over and over again.

"I started thinking about a stage show, where the story would be happening right in front of you in a theater," Bergstein said. "And when people who see it come up to me, the thing they always seem to say is, 'I was so relieved.' They wanted it to be the same."

Only the plot and the music can remain, of course. The actors have to try to give audiences accustomed to Grey and the late Swayze something similar enough to persuade them.

Pergande said he doesn't feel pressure to be like the figure on the screen.

"I make sure I bring myself to the character," he said. "I identify with Johnny a lot. He was from a working-class family and fell into a passion for the arts, which is very similar to my own story growing up in Milwaukee. And Michele Lynch has rechoreographed the show, so there's a lot more dancing that Gillian Abbott [who plays Baby] and I get to do."

Pergande brings to the role an extensive background in dance, including performances with the San Francisco Ballet and American Ballet Theatre. "Dirty Dancing" was one of the movies ("White Nights" with ballet star Mikhail Baryshnikov was another) that helped point him toward the ballet world.

"Patrick Swayze was this masculine kind of guy, and he made it all right for guys to dance," Pergande said.

In the end, the story Bergstein wrote is not just about sensuality and nostalgic music.

"There are things in it that seem to pertain to whatever is happening today, including right now in Baltimore with civil rights," said Pergande.

Issues of class, inequality, war and more slip into the conversation of "Dirty Dancing." And a significant plot point has to do with an abortion for one of the characters.

"People gave me a lot of flak about having mentions of Martin Luther King and Vietnam in there," Bergstein said. "But all of that was important to me. I just didn't think that Roe v. Wade would be under attack again, and that men would be sent halfway around the world to fight a war again. And I thought the racial thing would be better now. I realize I was being idiotic."

tim.smith@baltsun.com

If you go

"Dirty Dancing" opens Tuesday and runs through May 24 at the Hippodrome Theatre, 12 N. Eutaw St. Tickets are $30.25 to $115.25. Call 410-547-7328 or go to ticketmaster.com.

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