'Dirty Dancing' musical aims to give audiences time of their lives again

Jillian Mueller (Baby) and Samuel Pergande (Johnny) in the North American tour of "Dirty Dancing." Photo by Matthew Murphy.

More than a quarter of a century ago (27 years), Johnny Castle barked that “nobody puts Baby in a corner!” – and a film phenomenon was born.

“Dirty Dancing,” the romantic musical/coming-of-age story set in the Catskills, turned Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey into icons of their day, while the film’s 1960s setting ensured that music from The Ronettes, The Four Seasons and the Drifters earned its own second act.

The combination of a charming, semi-autobiographical story from Eleanor Bergstein, easily mimicked footwork and a score worthy of several soundtracks gave “Dirty Dancing” the necessary ingredients to morph into a stage version, which it did in 2004 with a debut at the Theatre Royal in Sydney, Australia.

The show has maintained a strong following overseas: It opened in London in 2006, toured Ireland and the U.K. since 2011, played for 19 months in Berlin and ran through Holland and South Africa.

A brief U.S. visit in 2008 has led to a new American tour, which launched in August in Washington, D.C., and will play the Fox Theatre Tuesday through Sunday (nov25-30). The show continues through June 2015 with stops in Jacksonville, New Orleans, Philadelphia and many other cities before wrapping in Charlotte.

Conrad Helfrich, the music supervisor for “Dirty Dancing – The Classic Story On Stage,” chatted pleasantly about the show last week from Australia.

Fans of the movie will be relieved to hear that, “All of the basic iconic tracks are there,” Helfrich said, including “Hungry Eyes,” “She’s Like The Wind” and, of course, the vibrant “(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life.”

Eight members of an orchestra perform the songs live – except for scene-establishing tracks emanating from a record player or radio on stage – while show leads Samuel Pergande and Jillian Mueller give new life to Johnny and Frances “Baby” Houseman.

Here is what else Helfrich had to say about the production.

Q: How true is the show to the movie?

A: Very. It really has to be, because to not follow it or to provide some sort of different slant would be disappointing to an audience. The minute you put the title and logo up there, you’re delivering an expectation. We’ve gone out of our way to re-create all of the moments. It’s actually hard, because when people love a movie so fondly, they tend to, in their own mind, think of it through rose-colored glasses that it was a little bit better than it was. When I started really working hard on getting the music down on paper to orchestrate, I’d go back to the original track of “Time of My Life,” and thought, ‘I remember it being bigger than this.’ But it never struck me as being less than wonderful. It’s hard when you’re re-creating for a live show because you’re battling against the wonderful memories people have of the movie.

Q: There must be quite an array of generations in the audience.

A: I didn’t realize until I looked at the audiences, particularly for places we’ve played for a while, like the U.K. It seems to be the children of the people who saw the movie in the ‘80s are a major audience factor. Whenever Mickey and Sylvia’s “Love is Strange” starts, there’s always a ripple in the audience, like, I remember this! And I think, how could they remember when they weren’t even a thought at the time! [The song was a hit in 1956.]

The leads don't sing in the live show, just as their movie counterparts didn't. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

Q: Did you have any input in casting Samuel and Jillian to see how they mixed with the music?

A: Neither of them sings in the show. They do exactly what Patrick and Jennifer did in the movie, they don’t sing a note. But because we do it live, we have to have other characters in the show provide the live vocals. Eleanor (who wrote the movie and created the stage version) always felt that Johnny or Baby wouldn’t break out into song, so these remain totally acting roles.

Tito, the band leader, we’ve expanded his role. He now becomes a vocalist as well as a conductor. Baby’s sister Lisa sings the hula song (“Hula Hana”).  “Time of My Life” and “Do You Love Me,” they get sung by the ensemble. Whenever we cast the company, there has to be a core who can sing topline pop and rock ‘n’ roll.

Q: Before your involvement with the show, did you ever think of “Dirty Dancing” as making the leap from film to stage?

A: I thought it would never happen. I thought the movie was so iconic and had staying power and it always seems when it’s replayed and the DVD and music sales are always so big, why would the people who own the movie want to bother with a live production? I was surprised that it happened. But I spoke to Eleanor and found she really wanted to create a quite different piece of art; that this was not just a conversion from film to stage, but it provided the audiences with a “Dirty Dancing” experience different from the one in the movie. She wanted them to feel that rather than having that barrier that exists with screen, an audience could feel closer to the characters and almost feel as if they’re part of it.

She felt that audiences might want to know more about the political situations in 1963, maybe for the “Dirty Dancing” aficionado who would get more from the experience than just watching the movie again.

Q: Do you know if Patrick Swayze ever got to see the stage version? (Swayze passed away in 2009.)

A: I believe he did. Patrick was working in a production in London – “Guys and Dolls” around 2006 – and he did come along to see the show. He and Eleanor had always kept in touch.

Q: Are there still aspirations to bring the show to Broadway?

A: When the time is right, everyone would love it to go to Broadway and the fact that it’s going around America without going to Broadway is a little unusual. Because it is an American story, to a certain extent, the show is wonderfully popular all around the world. But it needs to prove itself as a production worth seeing before Americans will embrace it. It’s going to have to get its street cred, and the only way for that to happen is for people to see it, so you’ve got to put it around America.ant it to be the highlight of the journey.

“Dirty Dancing — The Classic Story on Stage”: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday (Nov. 25-27); 8 p.m. Friday (Nov. 28); 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday (Nov. 29); 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sunday (Nov. 30). $30-$95. Fox Theatre, 660 Peachtree St. N.E., Atlanta. 1-855-285-8499, www.foxtheatre.org.

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About the Author

Melissa Ruggieri
Melissa Ruggieri
Atlanta Journal-Constitution staff writer Melissa Ruggieri covers music and entertainment news for the AJC. She remembers when MTV was awesome.