DIRTY DANC­ING

THE CLAS­SIC STORY ON STAGE

The Commercial Appeal - Go Memphis - - FRONT PAGE - By John Bei­fuss bei­fuss@com­mer­cialap­peal.com 901-529-2394

“Dirty” is in the ti­tle, but it isn’t the only ap­pro­pri­ate ad­jec­tive to ap­pend to the noun “Danc­ing” when dis­cussing writer Eleanor Berg­stein’s tale about a teenage girl who is in­tro­duced to the mambo, love and sex (in that or­der) dur­ing a fate­ful va­ca­tion to the Catskills in the sum­mer of 1963.

“Lu­cra­tive” works too. “In­spi­ra­tional.” “Sur­pris­ing.” And, per­haps, “Never-end­ing.”

Pro­duced for less than $6 mil­lion and lack­ing big-name ac­tors, the 1987 movie “Dirty Danc­ing” with Pa­trick Swayze and Jen­nifer Grey was sup­posed to dis­ap­pear as quickly as a piece of a ni­trate film stock in a flash fire, Berg­stein said in a re­cent phone in­ter­view.

“All the time we were mak­ing it, every­one told us what a piece of junk it was,” said Berg­stein, who was a pro­ducer of the film as well as its writer. “Pa­trick was too old. Jen­nifer was too ugly. A hot pro­ducer screened it and said, ‘Burn the nega­tive and take the in­sur­ance.’ So we had no ex­pec­ta­tions about it at all.”

For­tu­nately for all in­volved, au­di­ences had no ex­pec­ta­tions about it, either. “Dirty Danc­ing” was “pitched as a movie for pre­teens,” ac­cord­ing to Berg­stein, but it im­me­di­ately was em­braced by all ages and es­pe­cially by women, who re­turned to see it over and over, charmed by its tale of “Baby,” a plucky hero­ine from an af­flu­ent fam­ily who doesn’t let class dif­fer­ences pre­vent her from find­ing terp­si­chorean and ro­man­tic sat­is­fac­tion with “Johnny,” a re­sort dance in­struc­tor with bad gram­mar but ac­tive hips and big bi­ceps. The mod­est movie earned pos­i­tive re­views, an Academy Award for Orig­i­nal Song, and $214 mil­lion at the box of­fice.

“That’s why I feel so be­holden to the au­di­ence,” said the Brook­lyn-born Berg­stein, 77. “They dis­cov­ered it. The first week­end we got adult au­di­ences as well as the teenagers in the mall. Peo­ple walked right out and walked right back in to see it.”

What’s more, “Dirty Danc­ing” con­tin­ues to make tracks, thanks to its rein­car­na­tion over the past decade-plus as a stage mu­si­cal that has been per­formed in 16 dif­fer­ent coun­tries. The lat­est ver­sion ar­rives Tues­day at the Or­pheum in what rep­re­sents the open­ing-night per­for­mance for this par­tic­u­lar pro­duc­tion, show­cas­ing a new cast and com­pany that Berg­stein calls

“the best” in the show’s his­tory.

“I’m very proud of this show that’s com­ing to Mem­phis,” said Berg­stein, who re­tains cast ap­proval on pro­duc­tions of “Dirty Danc­ing” around the globe (“If it’s across the world, they send me video­tapes”) and has been in New York watch­ing re­hearsals of the new pro­duc­tion. “It has been said that I cast for soul, and in this case they are such beau­ti­ful, sweet per­form­ers. Our Johnny is prob­a­bly the best Johnny we’ve had since Pa­trick.”

For this pro­duc­tion, Johnny is played by Christo­pher Tier­ney, while Baby is Bron­wyn Reed (a reg­u­lar on “Law & Or­der: Spe­cial Vic­tims Unit” who next will be seen with Char­l­ize Theron in “The Last Face,” di­rected by Sean Penn). The direc­tor is James Pow­ell, with chore­og­ra­phy by Michelle Lynch. The eight-piece live band will ac­com­pany the per­form­ers on a juke­box-wor­thy col­lec­tion of Golden Oldies (The Con­tours’ “Do You Love Me?,” Otis Red­ding’s “Love Man”), plus the hit 1980s tunes orig­i­nally writ­ten for the movie (“Hun­gry Eyes,” the Os­car-win­ning “Time of My Life”).

The Mem­phis book­ing will be fol­lowed by dates in 45-plus other cities all over the U.S., from Charlotte to Salt Lake City, from Mi­ami to New Jersey.

Berg­stein won’t be in Mem­phis for the pre­miere (“I don’t go to the open­ing be­cause that’s largely me stand­ing on the stage, wav­ing”), but at least one per­son as­so­ci­ated with the birth of “Dirty Danc­ing” will be at the Or­pheum. Now based near Mi­ami, 90-year-old Michael Ter­race, a “mambo Pal­la­dium dancer” and long­time Catskills in­struc­tor and per­former, will be in Mem­phis to see “Dirty Danc­ing” with his Mem­phis friends, Arnold and Joan Weiss, who have dance con­nec­tions of their own: Joan is a for­mer pro­fes­sional who was Ter­race’s dance part­ner for a while.

Berg­stein said Ter­race was among her sources when she be­gan re­search­ing “Dirty Danc­ing,” to see if the facts con­firmed her teenage mem­o­ries of the so­cial life and en­ter­tain­ment in the re­sorts of the Catskill Moun­tains re­sorts in up­state New York in the early 1960s.

“In fact, it was even seamier than I imag­ined,” she said. “I got such ex­tra­or­di­nary, rich sto­ries from all of these dancers. I was like a kid with my nose pressed against the win­dow of a dance stu­dio, look­ing at a world that

van­ished long ago. That’s why I set the story in the sum­mer of 1963, be­fore JFK was killed, be­fore the Bea­tles came. ... That sum­mer was the last sum­mer where you re­ally felt that if your heart was pure and you reached out your hand, you could re­ally change the world.”

The movie “Dirty Danc­ing” es­tab­lishes that Baby hopes to join the Peace Corps, and al­ludes to “po­lice dogs” in Birm­ing­ham and to “monks burn­ing them­selves in protest,” but the stage play is more

ex­plicit in its so­cial mes­sag­ing. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s fa­mous “I Have a Dream” speech, which oc­curred on Aug. 28, 1963, be­comes part of the play, and a med­ley of “This Land Is Your Land/ We Shall Over­come” adds folk mu­sic to the orig­i­nal pop playlist.

In the play, “Ev­ery­thing leads up to that speech, so the rea­son this not-very­wealthy left-wing fam­ily is in the Catskills at that time in the first place is that Baby wants to go to Wash­ing­ton for the speech, but the me­dia keep say­ing it’s

go­ing to be vi­o­lent there. So the fa­ther takes the fam­ily on va­ca­tion, the no­tion be­ing that even when you want to make the world bet­ter, you don’t want your child to get hurt.”

Berg­stein said she was sur­prised when she learned she had the stage rights to “Dirty Danc­ing,” thanks to her orig­i­nal con­tract. In other words, “I had the right to say ‘No,’ which as any type of cre­ative per­son will tell you is a rare right.”

For many years she re­sisted over­tures to ap­prove a stage mu­si­cal. “I thought it wasn’t nec­es­sary, and I didn’t want to take ad­van­tage of the au­di­ence by mak­ing them pay for some­thing they had seen be­fore.” But in 2001 she be­gan to “work­shop” a mu­si­cal, and be­came in­trigued by the pos­si­bil­i­ties. Re­hearsals be­gan in New York on Sept. 10, 2001. Berg­stein said the tragedy of the next day only gal­va­nized the troupe, once its mem­bers were able to re­turn to work.

She said the per­form­ers who win the “Johnny” role are a cer­tain type of ac­tive, ex­pres­sive artist. “It’s the same thing with all these dancers: They’re kind of wild boys who have a crack in them, as Johnny does, and they’re very ath­letic, and they see ‘Dirty Danc­ing’ when they’re like 12, 13, 14, and they’re very im­pressed with Pa­trick. So they go to one dance class for the hell of it, and they see all these girls three­quar­ters un­dressed, and they stick with it.”

Fans, too, stick with “Dirty Danc­ing.”

“I like to watch the au­di­ences in the lobby be­fore they go in,” Berg­stein said. “It’s as if they’re hold­ing hope in their arms. They have so much hope that this will give them some­thing they want to have, and I can’t stand the idea that we would ever let them down.”

Christo­pher Tier­ney plays Johnny, the dance in­struc­tor por­trayed by Pa­trick Swayze in the 1987 film, and Rachel Boone is Baby, the teenager por­trayed by Jen­nifer Grey in the “Dirty Danc­ing” movie.

COURTESY OF VESTRON

Pa­trick Swayze and Jen­nifer Grey were the odd-cou­ple ro­man­tic stars of the movie “Dirty Danc­ing” in 1987.

The stage mu­si­cal of “Dirty Danc­ing” has been per­formed in 16 coun­tries. The show that will open Tues­day at the Or­pheum will be the open­ing night pro­duc­tion for a new cast and com­pany.

Christo­pher Tier­ney (front left) plays Johnny, and Jerome Har­mann-harde­man plays Tito in the stage pro­duc­tion of “Dirty Danc­ing,” which will open Tues­day at the Or­pheum.

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