By Molly Woulfe
When it comes to romance, the movie “Dirty Dancing” (1987) is a teen dream. Nice girl meets tough guy at a Catskills resort. He teaches her to shake her maracas. She teaches him to trust.
Then Frances “Baby” Houseman and Johnny Castle fall in love, and their passion grand jet念191;?s over minor issues — irate parents, social snobbery and class differences — mirroring growing unrest in 1963 America.
The dance partners-turned-sweethearts are tested when Baby’s physician father (Jerry Orbach) presumes Johnny impregnated an ex-flame. The hunk is framed and fired.
Happily, love and truth prevail in the course of an hour and 45 minutes. Johnny (Patrick Swayze) literally sweeps Baby (Jennifer Grey) off her feet in the finale. Swooooooooon.
The rest is box-office lore. The sweaty $5 million sleeper raked in more than $170 million worldwide, spawning a TV series, a sequel and copycat films. It also made Swayze (“Ghost”) a star and added his line “Nobody puts Baby in a corner” to the national lexicon. The closing number “(I’ve Had The) Time of My Life” bagged an Oscar, Golden Globe and Grammy.
Fast forward more than three decades. Inspired by the film, “Dirty Dancing: The Classic Story on Stage” shimmies into Chicago’s Cadillac Palace Theatre Sunday night for what is billed a pre-Broadway run through Dec. 7. And “DD” screenwriter-playwright Eleanor Bergstein, who based the script on her Brooklyn girlhood, is having the time of her life.
She’s “thrilled, really thrilled” her coming-of-age romance, which first tangoed on stage in 2004, is finally Stateside.
“It was always meant to be a stage musical. What people wanted, when they watched it over and over, was to break through the flat screen and be part of the action,” the original Baby said.
Like her alter ego, Bergstein — still girlish at 70 — summered with her doctor-father, mother and sister (Frances) at luxury Jewish resorts in the Catskills. Unlike Baby, she was a teen mambo queen, with a not-so-secret life as a dirty dancer, honing her bumping and grinding in Brooklyn rec rooms.
Later she worked as an Arthur Murray dance instructor, an experience that helped shape the role of Johnny. “There’s a lot of both Johnny and Baby in me,” she said, her eyes twinkling.
Judging from ticket sales, Mr. Tight Pants and Baby still have legs, too. The dance romance has drawn mixed reviews yet full houses in Germany, New Zealand and London. Thanks to the export of American pop culture, theater-goers worldwide have found the summer romance between Baby, 17, and the not-so-bad Johnny irresistible.
As was the case with “Dirty Dancing,” the stage cast is heavy on unknown. Aussie actor Josef Brown, fresh from creating the role of Johnny Down Under and in London, is reprising his role in the U.S. production.
The 6-foot-2 hoofer came late to dance and theater. In true Johnny Castle style, he began auditioning for plays at a local girls’ school so he could meet girls. He later trained at the Australian Ballet School in Melbourne, marrying a fellow dancer at a Sydney company. Wife Katherine and their two young children are touring with him.
He’s “never actually dirty danced” with his wife, “but we danced a lot when we were partnered in Sydney,” Brown said.
The 30-something remembers “Terminator” — not “Dirty Dancing” — being released in the ’80s. But when he finally did catch “DD,” Brown found a role model in Swayze/Johnny. Tough guys could dance!
“All of a sudden, you see this guy, a straight guy, cool (dancing). When you’re at that age, you want to be all those things. And of course, you’re not,” Brown said.
As for Baby, she will be played by Texas native Amanda Leigh Cobb, a Yale-trained actress who appeared on Broadway in “The Country Girl” and “The Coast of Utopia.” The 5-foot-4 Cobb is a near-ringer for Grey’s character. And identifies with her, she said.
She, too, was an idealist and a bookworm, Cobb said. Growing up, she loved the “DD” video. But now she appreciates the subtext of the story. “It’s set in 1963, the summer of Martin Luther King’s (“I Have a Dream”) speech, before President Kennedy got shot, before The Beatles came,” she said. All the characters “are on the cusp of a very interesting political time. …. That makes this a really rich story and tapestry to work with.”
HOW DIRTY IS ‘DIRTY?’
Brown and Cobb are part of a cast of 39 — a staggering size by today’s standards — hired for the show. The script has been expanded to round out Johnny’s character as well as Baby’s parents’, Bergstein said.
The score includes 35 songs, including “Hungry Eyes,” “Hey Baby,” “Do You Love Me?” and “(I’ve Had the) Time of My Life.” Former Joffrey dancer Britta Lazenga will play the role of Penny, Johnny’s ex-partner.
The creative team behind the London and Toronto productions has re-teamed for the U.S. premiere, scheduled for stops in Boston and Los Angeles. The show is directed by James Powell, with choreography by Kate Champion.
So just how dirty is the dancing? The leads border on coy, a hint that “DD” live may involve more simulated sex than the PG-13 movie.
By its nature, erotic dancing calls for two people to make an intimate connection, Brown said.
“It’s not actually a spectator sport,” he said. “If the couple does it right, watchers feel like voyeurs, like, ‘Maybe I’m watching something I’m not supposed to be watching.’ When it’s done well, you get a redness in the cheek, a blush,” he said.
He personally thinks the numbers aren’t that scandalous. “I think it’s impossible to shock an audience today, with MTV, with everyone shaking their booty. (That’s) like soft porn,” he said.
The focus “is definitely lower in the body,” said Cobb, who warned her mother about the steamier numbers. “There’s a great line, as Baby is learning to dance. Johnny says, ‘It’s not on the one. It’s not the mambo. It’s a feeling, a heartbeat. Try to feel the music.’ Like Baby, that’s something I’m learning to do. … It’s delicious, so delicious, when you get it down.”
“Dirty Dancing — The Classic Story on Stage” U.S. premiere
When: Sunday through Dec. 7
Where: Cadillac Palace Theatre, 151 W. Randolph St., Chicago
Cost: $35 to $95. Premium tickets are $125 to $150.
FYI: Broadway in Chicago ticket line at (312) 902-1400, Ticketmaster or Hot Tix outlet or http://www.ticketmaster.com.