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‘Nobody Puts Baby in a Corner’

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1980s staple ‘Dirty Dancing’ reinvents itself on the Chicago stage 

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Johnny (played by Josef Brown) and Baby (played by Georgina Rich)—Opposites attract. A scene from the London production of the live show. Photo credit: David Scheinmann

“That was the summer of 1963 when everybody called me Baby and it didn’t occur to me to mind. That was before President Kennedy was shot, before The Beatles came, when I couldn’t wait to joint the Peace Corps, and I thought I’d never find a guy as great as my dad. That was the summer we went to Kellerman’s.”

These are the opening lines of the film “Dirty Dancing,” in which Frances “Baby” Houseman—a 17-year-old Jewish idealist—vacations with her family at a resort in the Catskill Mountains, where she discovers standing up for what she believes, the healing power of dance, and love.

Released in 1987, the film portrays a time of innocence set in the summer of 1963 on the cusp of big change in this country. “I called `63 the last summer of liberalism because it was the last summer you thought you could reach out your hand and make the world better and do it through peaceful and loving means,” said Eleanor Bergstein, writer and creator of the film. The character “Baby,” a nickname Bergstein was called until age 19, is partly based on Bergstein’s life.

Shot on a shoestring budget of $5 million in 44 days, the movie launched to fame unknown stars at the time, Jennifer Grey and Patrick Swayze. In 20 years, the coming-of-age movie has reached cult classic status. “Dirty Dancing” die-hards have watched the movie so many times that they can deliver the lines with the actors, including the random and oft-quoted “Nobody puts Baby in a corner,” which made the American Film Institute’s list of the top 100 most famous movie quotes of all times.

In fact, through Bergstein’s research, she discovered that certain cable TV stations would run the movie on a continual loop for 24 hours straight and fans, instead of watching bits and pieces of the movie, would cancel plans for the day to watch the movie continuously.

“Something happens to them while they’re in front of the [movie],” Bergstein said. “If what they really want to do is be present while it’s happening, then live theater is its natural form.”

So the “Dirty Dancing” obsession inspired Bergstein to transform the movie into a live stage production. The show, entitled “Dirty Dancing—The Classic Story On Stage,” branded a play with lots of dancing and music—as opposed to a musical—kicks off its pre-Broadway U.S. premiere at Chicago’s Cadillac Palace Theatre from Sept. 28 to Dec. 7. Bergstein adapts the play from the film, and James Powell directs the live production.

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Britta Lazenga (as Penny) and Jake Simmons (as Johnny) from the Toronto production, dirty dance. Photo credit: Cylla von Tiedmann

Before Chicago, the show played in Australia, Germany, England, and Toronto. Following its Windy City run, the play will tour several U.S. cities before premiering on Broadway.

“Dirty Dancing” is based on Bergstein’s recollections of summer vacations spent with her parents as a teenager at Grossinger’s, a swanky Catskills resort (named “Kellerman’s” in the fictitious story) with a large Jewish clientele. While her parents and older sister would tee off at the golf course, Bergstein would race off to the dance studio. There, she would enter and win “dirty” dancing competitions.

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Josef Brown (Johnny) and Nadia Coote (Penny) strut their stuff on stage with help from the ensemble from the London production of the show. Photo credit: David Scheinmann

In the film and the live show—like Bergstein—Baby, too, wanders into the staff living quarters of the resort and discovers a risqué, sexy, and exciting underworld of dancers. There, she meets the intense and sexy dance instructor, Johnny Castle, from the other side of the tracks. For a variety of reasons, Baby becomes Johnny’s dance partner, and Johnny begrudgingly gives her lessons. But soon, the two develop a magnetic attraction and a love affair despite coming from opposite worlds.

Both the film and show have a sensual appeal. “It’s a magical, empowering story and I don’t think it’s just women who love it,” said Lauren Klein, a Jewish actor in the show, who lives in the Catskills when she is not performing. “It’s also a very sexy story. Back in the ‘50s and ‘60s, sex was something that was thrilling, hidden, and mysterious, [unlike] today.”

More than just a romance, the play explores the civil rights era in greater depth than the film. It’s the summer of freedom marching and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have a dream” speech, and in one powerful campfire scene, the actors sing the protest song “We shall overcome,” an anthem of the civil rights movement.

“This was the generation—many of them first-generation Americans—that was coming out of the memories of the war,” said Bergstein. “They loved America and there was a great desire to make the world safe. They thought the Jews were going to be safe now because World War II was over and the next group that needed help was those who were then called Negroes.”

Amanda Leigh Cobb plays Baby, Josef Brown plays Johnny Castle, and Chicago’s own Britta Lazenga, a member of Chicago’s Joffrey Ballet, plays Penny Johnson.

Cobb compares playing Baby—a character ingrained into the 80s pop culture vernacular—to another famous lovesick protagonist from many decades ago. “I used to joke with my friends about doing Shakespeare,” Cobb said. “People would say, ‘Juliette, you should play Juliette.’ And I would say, ‘I don’t know, because everyone has an idea of Juliette and who she is. That’s a lot of pressure.’ So when I got the job playing Baby, my friends would call and tease me.”

“Dirty Dancing” covers a lot of ground in a tumultuous time, but—in the end—it’s about the dancer within. “It’s about a feeling that there is a secret dancer inside you that can connect you to the world,” said Bergstein. “People who have never danced before, people who dance all the time, people who always thought they could dance see the show. Everyone has a secret dancer inside.”

For tickets to the show, call (312) 902-1400. For group sales and for subscribers to the 2008 Broadway In Chicago Season Series, call (312) 977-1710. For more information, visit  www.dirtydancingamerica.com or  www.broadwayinchicago.com . 

Oy!sters recall their, "I carried a watermelon" moments and other Dirty Dancing memories. What are yours?

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