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All the Right Moves

Adapted by the movie’s original writer, the nostalgia-powered Dirty Dancing: The Classic Story on Stage pushes the same emotional buttons as the Jennifer Grey and Patrick Swayze romantic classic.

Donna Leahey
March 29, 2017

No one puts Baby in a corner. No one stops Johnny Castle from dancing the last dance of the season. And few can resist the infectious energy of Dirty Dancing.

A coming-of-age story, a love story, a story filled with themes as topical today as they were when the classic movie was released in 1987, the spectacular stage production of Dirty Dancing embraces the story and expands on it with scenes and additional music. Set in the Catskills in 1963, with classic music, choreography, and sets that bring the stage to life, Dirty Dancing: The Classic Story on Stage played the West End for five years and toured Australia starting in 2004.

“It’s a tight rope to walk,” says associate director Kasey RT Graham, regarding the challenges of paying homage to an American cultural icon while still making it fresh and new. “So many moments from
the movie are iconic that you don’t want to cut them out. What we’ve done is keep the most important moments and the big themes. We’ve found theatrical ways to make those moments work on the stage.”

Dirty Dancing was written by Eleanor Bergstein, based on her childhood and experiences. Like Frances Houseman, she is the daughter of a Jewish New York doctor and spent her summers vacationing in the Catskills. Like the story’s main character, she was nicknamed “Baby” and participated in dancing competitions. The character of Johnny Castle was based on a dance instructor she met in the Catskills while researching the story.

Bergstein struggled to get a studio to commit to her script, before she managed to find the newly formed Vestron Pictures, who gave the movie a budget less than half the average at the time. After filming was completed, there was doubt it would even be released as the film struggled to find sponsors willing to be associated with some of the themes. In the end, of course, Dirty Dancing was beloved by audiences, critically acclaimed, and won an Academy Award (Best Original Song), several Golden Globes, and a pair of Grammys.

In 2004, Bergstein adapted her script into a stage play, using the same songs as the film and adding in a few new scenes to expand on the story and the themes of the show.

Dirty Dancing: The Classic Story on Stage includes all the songs you love and remember, like “Hungry Eyes,” “Hey! Baby,” “Do You Love Me” and the heart-stopping “(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life. (Photo: Matthew Murphy)
The show includes all the songs you love and remember, like “Hungry Eyes,” “Hey! Baby,” “Do You Love Me” and the heart-stopping “(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life. (Photo: Matthew Murphy)

“The story is the same,” Graham says. “It’s fleshed out a bit. It’s always been an important part of Eleanor’s life — turning her story into a stage property. It was important to her to use the theatricality of
 the theater to enact this story; to build on the memory rather than diminish it.

“The entire reason they’re at Kellermans, for instance, is to keep Baby from going to a civil rights march. That is explored. The themes and subplots in this story are unfortunately still topical. It’s a little different now, but some of these ideas are even more important.”

Audiences should expect to see the story they know and love and quote. “They’ll be able to experience the story on a deeper level. They’ll enjoy the flow of the show. I hear that a lot, how quickly the show moves from moment to moment.”

The show includes all the songs you love and remember, like “Hungry Eyes,” “Hey! Baby,” “Do You Love Me” and the heart-stopping “(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life. ” There are a few new songs as well, since the success of the movie gave Bergstein the power to license a few more songs for the stage play.

“There’s a tip of the hat to the original dancers,” says Graham. “The choreography is expanded because on the stage, you see everything all at once, so lots of really fantastic, sexy dancers, lots of lifts and thrills and wild dancing.”

Graham is also enthusiastic about the lead actors. “They’re great together, they have great chemistry. Baby seldom leaves the stage except to change clothes, and she and Johnny work so well together to bring this story to life”

The response to the stage production has been overwhelmingly positive. “The audience response is staggeringly insane,” says Graham. “They leap to their feet, clapping and laughing. [It’s] like nothing I’ve worked on before. You really can’t believe it until you see it. And it’s not just the 20 year olds screaming; the screaming fans are from a demographic you don’t expect. Women in their 50s, 60s and older are cheering and yelling and on their feet.”

Dirty Dancing: The Classic Story on Stage
Tulsa Performing Arts Center
April 11-13: 7:30 p.m.
April 14: 8 p.m.
April 15: 2 p.m., 8 p.m.
April 16: 2 p.m., 7 p.m.