Rendezvous with Dirty Dancing at the Schuster

By Eric Street

Photo: (left) Christopher Tierney as Johnny and Bronwyn Reed as Baby and (above) Tierney with Jerome Harmann Hardeman as Tito Suarez in Dirty Dancing; photos: Matthew Murphy

Forbidden love. It’s the unquenchable passion that dooms Romeo and Juliet, the glowing embers that ignite West Side Story, and the underlying conflict that animates enough steamy romance novels to heat Chicago in a blizzard. Forbidden love afflicts both the humble and the mighty, and you can find examples stretching back to Biblical times when King David first cast an inappropriate eye on Bathsheba. Today you can see a multitude of films that delve into the subject, from “Brokeback Mountain” to “Harold and Maude.” Of course, nothing makes forbidden love on screen sizzle more than a little (dirty) dancing.

Based on the original, low-budget romantic dance film by Eleanor Bergstein and produced by a fledgling studio, Dirty Dancing—The Classic Story on Stage dances its way into the Schuster Center March 14-19 as part of the Victoria Theatre Association’s Premier Health Broadway Series. The 1987 film that inspired the musical brought stardom to virtual unknowns, Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey, in the leading roles of handsome dance instructor Johnny Castle and his 17-year-old student Frances, known as “Baby.”

Baby is a curly-haired teenager who falls in love for the first time while on summer vacation with her well-heeled family at a resort in the Catskills. She’s a ’60s good-girl earmarked for college and marriage, but her sheltered life takes a dramatic detour when she meets Johnny Castle, the resort’s steamy, bad-boy dance instructor. Johnny and Baby are thrust together for a performance when Johnny’s original partner, Penny Johnson, learns she is unexpectedly pregnant.

Baby gradually sheds her awkwardness and her inhibitions as she gets to know the irresistible Johnny and tastes his working-class life. Along the way, she learns more than some great dance moves.

“If you love the film, this will be mind-blowing,” says Jennifer Mealani Jones, who plays Penny Johnson in the musical. “It’s the music, but so much more. The dancing is great! And it’s as relevant now as when Eleanor Bergstein first wrote it, adding “The show is awesome. It makes you feel like you’re there at Kellerman Summer Camp—inside the action, alive with everyone in the cast! We have so much more music than the film, and, of course, there’s all the dancing.” Members of the cast come from a variety of dance backgrounds—there’s Broadway and ballroom, along with classically trained Julliard graduates, according to Jones.  “You name it—we have it all!”

First produced in Australia, the musical boasts the same songs as the film, along with a few extra scenes. The music, played live by an eight-piece onstage band, underscores the passionate romance and sensational dancing. Seen by millions across the globe, this engaging love story features the hit songs “Hungry Eyes,” “Hey Baby,” “Do You Love Me?” and the heart-stopping “(I’ve Had) The Time Of My Life.”

Perhaps owing to the sizzle of its stars and composer John Leonard Morris’  ear-catching music, “Dirty Dancing” was the first film to sell more than a million copies on home video. Its now-familiar soundtrack produced two multi-platinum albums and several singles, including “(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life,” which won both a Golden Globe and an Academy Award for Best Original Song, as well as a Grammy Award for best duet.

The musical has been no less successful. The initial Australian production was followed by sellout runs in Germany and in London’s West End, where it opened in 2006 with the highest pre-sale in London history. Over one million people saw the musical in London before the West End production closed after a five-year run. Following a two-year national tour, the show returned to the West End for seven more months before resuming its tour.

Crossing quickly to North America, Dirty Dancing broke box office records in May 2007, selling $2 million on the first day of ticket sales in Toronto, Canada. A year later, 2008, the musical opened in Chicago before moving on to Boston and Los Angeles. The most recent North American tour began in September 2014 in Washington, D.C. with dates scheduled in dozens of cities, including Dayton.

“The company that we have assembled for our North American tour is beautiful and truthful,” says Eleanor Bergstein, screenwriter for the film and book writer for the musical. “I originally wrote the movie because I love to dance. And since the movie first appeared, the open-hearted audience response has made me believe that everyone has a secret dancer inside them, one they feel could connect them to the physical world in the way they dream.”

The North American tour company is directed by James Powell, with choreography by Michele Lynch based on Kate Champion’s original film choreography. The creative team includes set design by Stephen Brimson Lewis; lighting design, Tim Mitchell; costume design, Jennifer Irwin; as well as sound design by Bobby Aitken. Video and projection design are by Jon Driscoll, and hair design by Bernie Ardia. Conrad Helfrich is music supervisor and orchestrator, and Alan Plado is music director.

Dancer or not, everyone can appreciate a classic forbidden love story, whether it involves a doomed tryst or a longhaired Fabio type character. It just so happens that dancing is the hot grease that makes Dirty Dancing sizzle this time around.

Dirty Dancing—The Classic Story on Stage takes the stage at 8 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, Mar. 14-18; 2 p.m. and 8 p.m., Saturday, March 18; and 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m., Sunday, March 19 at the Schuster Center, 1 W. Second St. in downtown Dayton. For tickets or more information, please call 937.228.3630 or visit


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Eric Street is Professor of Music at UD with a doctorate from Indiana University. His Carnegie Hall debut led to performances in 36 countries on six continents. An opera lover, he’s taught Opera History and accompanied over two-dozen singers from the Metropolitan and NYC Opera. Reach him at

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