Dirty Dancing giving fans the time of their lives

By Shandelle Battersby

As the theatre lights dim and a thunder of music rolls around the room, the excited audience hushes in anticipation.

When the lights come back on they reveal Frances "Baby" Houseman lying on her bed, writing in her diary. It is the summer of 1963. And this is the faithful Australian recreation of 1987's popular teen flick Dirty Dancing as a stage show, complete with multi-media video imagery, live band and more flashy dance moves than you can shake a stick at.

In the next act Baby is travelling with her family in their car, on their way to Kellerman's resort in New York's Catskills for the summer holidays. The eerie thing about the scene before us is the uncanny resemblance of the diminutive figure in the backseat of to one of the most loved movie characters of the 80s. Former Neighbours star Kym Valentine does a fantastic job of imitating Jennifer Grey's Baby.

Valentine is happy to admit she mimics Grey.

"The first 15 minutes of the show I make sure the audience totally believes I'm Baby. I made a conscious choice early on that's what I wanted to do because people know me so well from Neighbours."

Grey's and co-star Patrick Swayze's characters in the original film are etched in people's memories.

Was it intimidating taking on roles so well-loved by fans and so heavily characterised by the actors?

"It was more daunting taking on the characters of Baby and Johnny, and making people believe we were telling their story," Valentine says.

"I always say naivety is bliss. I didn't try to be Patrick from the word go, because I didn't really have an understanding of just how popular he was," adds Josef Brown, who plays Kellerman's dance instructor Johnny Castle with remarkable similarity to Swayze.

"Once you gain [the audience's] trust and they recognise the characters they love, then you can take them on your own interpretation of Baby and Johnny," says Valentine.

Seventeen-year-old Baby is restlessly roaming the resort when she comes across Johnny and the other staff members "dirty dancing", Latin American-style, after hours. She volunteers to become Johnny's dance partner at short notice while his usual partner Penny recovers from a backyard abortion. The couple fall in love, much to the chagrin of Baby's father.

Brown says he sets up his character in the dance scenes.

"It has to be good, it has to be flashy, it has to work, because if that falls apart, then [Johnny's] credibility is lost."

The film's writer, American Eleanor Bergstein, was involved in the production from the beginning, which Brown says was instrumental in defining their roles.

"We were lucky to be able to bypass the film and go straight to the source. So just as Patrick would have said, 'Hey Eleanor, what's going on in this scene', I'm able to do that, too, so we've both come out from the same place."

The stage show has been a huge success and its eight weekly performances have been selling out across Australia for the past 18 months. The New Zealand leg of the tour will run for at least five weeks, while a different incarnation is soon to start in Germany and a London version is planned for later in the year.

It's the latest in a series of music-heavy films adapted to the stage including Saturday Night Fever, Footloose and Fame, none of which has had much success. So why has Dirty Dancing been such a phenomenal hit?

"People really, really enjoy themselves. [The audience has] so much fun when they see this show, and it spreads," Valentine says.

"Our director Mark Wing-Davey is from repertory theatre in London and has a completely different vision of how theatre works. He hasn't come from a musical background, so has brought something really different to the show. He's kept the integrity of what people loved about the story," adds Brown.

He says Kate Champion, the production's choreographer, approached the show narratively rather than in terms of movement.

"It sets it apart from the rest, and makes it so it's not just some tacky dancing which overlooks the story."

What is it about the original film that people love so much?

"It's a good story - it's sexy, romantic, dramatic, some moments are ugly, some are really beautiful, it's frivolous, joyous, heartbreaking. You feel it all over the two-and-a-half hours," Brown says.

"I think, especially in your teenage years, you're waiting for something exciting to happen to you, you just want change.

"You know where your life is going to head and Baby was like that - she knew she was going to university, she was hungry for something exciting to happen. We all have that, whether you're 40 or 17, and that's why even people who are 60 come along and they love the story, would still love a Johnny or something to happen that's going to completely blow their life out of the water.

"So that's why they still get something out of it."

Though it has the feel and energy of a musical, the stage show is an exact replica of the film. It even includes the river scene where Baby and Johnny practise their dance moves, cleverly constructed using shimmering material to represent the water.

"If you like the movie you will not be disappointed with the stage show - we don't mess with it. It's word for word," says Valentine. "Eleanor's vision was always that we stay very true to the film and to the characters and the iconic moments that people loved."

* Dirty Dancing: The Classic Story on Stage is on at the Civic, Auckland from Mar 29-Apr 16

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