Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 17 September 2014

Our exclusive chat with the stars of Dirty Dancing ahead of show at Belfast's Grand Opera House

Summer lovin': Baby (Roseanna Frascona) and Johnny (Gareth Bailey) in the musical version of Dirty Dancing
Lift off: Johnny (Gareth Bailey) and Penny (Claire Rogers) coach Baby (Roseanna Frascona) ahead of that famous scene
As they were: Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey in the original film

As the phenomenally successful musical opens tonight at Belfast's Grand Opera House, Maureen Coleman meets the actors stepping into the iconic roles of Johnny and Baby.

It's the coming-of-age story that captured the hearts and imaginations of cinema-goers in 1987, spawning a record-breaking stage show that's been seen by more than six million people worldwide.

Dirty Dancing not only made stars of its lead actors, Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey, but its sugar-sweet soundtrack remained number one in the US album charts for 18 weeks and sparked a revival of interest in early Sixties music.

Set in the summer of 1963, against the backdrop of New York's Catskill Mountains, Dirty Dancing centres on 17-year-old Frances 'Baby' Houseman and the lessons she learns about love and life, while holidaying with her family.

While her parents and sister Lisa happily throw themselves into the resort's uninspiring activities, Baby accidentally discovers the staff quarters, where she is not only fixated by the steamy dance moves she sees, but by the handsome dance instructor, Johnny Castle.

The movie premiered in the US in August 1987 and within 10 days had broken the $10m mark at the box office.

It was one of the highest grossing films of that year and when it was re-released a decade later, Swayze was given his own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Such was the popularity of Dirty Dancing, that the stage show, which was penned by Eleanor Bergstein, script writer of the 1987 film, sold out six months in advance when it opened in London in 2006.

The production ran for five years at the Aldwych Theatre, where it broke all box office records with advance ticket sales of over £15m.

In September 2011, the show hit the road for its first ever UK and Ireland tour, wowing audiences and playing to standing ovations and five star reviews.

This year's tour will include Belfast for the first time. Audiences will be treated to tantalising choreography, original dialogue from the movie, including crowd-pleaser, "nobody puts Baby in the corner" and the unforgettable songs synonymous with Baby's life-changing summer – Hungry Eyes, Do You Love Me? Love Man, You Don't Own Me and the Oscar winning (I've Had) The Time Of My Life.

After a successful run at the Bord Gais Energy Theatre in Dublin, Dirty Dancing opens at the Grand Opera House in Belfast tonight, where it will run until August 16.

Stepping in to the dancing shoes of Patrick Swayze is Gareth Bailey, who previously played Robbie in the show as well as the Johnny Castle understudy.

Gareth was determined to bag the lead male role and his experience as first cover meant he was in pole position. When the opportunity arose to play Johnny on an international tour to South Africa, Hong Kong and Singapore, he jumped at the chance.

So how did he feel following in Swayze's famous footsteps? "In one way I was lucky to be first cover," he says.

"I didn't have to step on stage straight after a two, three, four week rehearsals period, not knowing how audiences would react.

"I had a lot of time to become comfortable with the character and the script, to go through and relearn the script, to analyse it in my own time. I was always trying to improve what I did. I'd take home notes I was given, then work on them. Next time I was on stage, I'd try and bring those notes into the production.

"Going on the international tour meant I went through another rehearsal process that allowed me to analyse the character even more and learn more about him.

"Patrick Swayze set the bar high playing Johnny Castle. He set a level of expectation as to how Johnny should be played.

"Once I had the role myself and I was becoming comfortable with it, then I went back to the movie and looked for inspiration.

"There are things that are achievable through cinematography that you can't get on stage but I definitely took some core emotions and ideas and feelings that I wanted to take into the show and portray myself.

"You get consumed by it. You don't forget the pressures, because there are expectations, but you use those pressures to drive yourself forward."

Early on in rehearsals misfortune struck when Gareth sprained his ankle. The injury saw him out of the show for the first seven and a half weeks, resulting in his first cover stepping in to take over.

It also meant that 24-year-old Roseanna Frascona, who plays Baby and bears a striking resemblance to Jennifer Grey, had to learn that spine-tingling, climatic lift all over again with a new partner.

"They were two people who had never done it before," says Gareth. "Then I came back and we just did it. It's very much about balance and confidence. If the guy is steady and confident in what he is doing, I think it makes the girl feel more secure."

Roseanna, who only left drama school last year, says she feels in safe hands with Gareth and thankfully, he hasn't dropped her yet.

"I just look at him and say 'Let's do a lift? Shall we?' and we get on with it," she says.

Unlike Gareth and co-star Claire Rogers, who plays resort dancer Penny Johnson in the show, Roseanna had little dance experience before landing the role.

"I went to a drama school where we did some dancing and when I was younger I did a bit of ballet," she says. "But Gareth and, of course, all of the men in the show lead the women. He does a fantastic job with me, especially in rehearsals. Right from the beginning he was helping me. Even now he's telling me extra things. It's all a big learning curve for me."

Claire, who performed in the Grand Opera House in the stage show Chicago two years ago, adds: "It's the same for Gareth and me. Before every show there are always things we are working on. It never just stays the same. You're always working on something."

Given her uncanny resemblance to Jennifer Grey, it's not surprising Roseanna was headhunted (sort of) to play Baby in the musical.

"I'm probably less like her without this fantastic wig," she laughs, "but I kind of was approached. I left LAMDA (London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art) this time last year and someone recommended me to the director for an audition, so they probably had seen me.

"I did a few films before this but in terms of stage after LAMDA, this is definitely the most exciting thing I've been involved in."

What is perhaps more surprising is that Roseanna has still never watched the movie version of Dirty Dancing, though she plans to catch up with it after her run with the show ends.

"I decided not to," she confides. "I didn't see it when I was younger. I don't know why we never had it at home, maybe we were watching Disney films too much.

"When I got the audition I thought 'Will I watch it?' but decided to just read the script and try to be that person. I knew how iconic the role was and thought that if I watched it the day before the audition, I'd end up trying to do an impersonation of her.

"I had a little chat with the director after I got the part. Obviously she has seen it and knows it so well. I think she'd keep me in check if I went miles away from her character."

Her co-stars, on the other hand, are huge fans of the film, but both say they've tried to make their respective roles their own.

"I grew up with the movie and was addicted to it so I was know the film really well," admits Claire. "But when I started playing this part, well, it's difficult because you are never going to be Penny Johnson from the film, so I tried to think about my own emotions and my own way of trying to play the character. Otherwise you just end up trying to copy someone else's performance.

"Of course, I've got the influences from it because you can't come away from having seen the film a million times without that. But as the tour goes on, you almost forget that you are playing a part that is so iconic from a film because it becomes your part.

"Now I don't even think about the film any more. I think about our production."

As the name suggests, it's the dancing that steals the show – two contrasting styles that reflect the changing times in 1963 and the growing influence of music on the younger generation.

In the guests' quarters, or "upstairs" as Gareth puts in, there's the more formal style of dance, such as the Foxtrot and Waltz.

Downstairs, in the staff's quarters, the chemistry sizzles as the dancers engage in raunchier moves.

Claire, who trained in classical ballet as a child, says: "Upstairs, the dancing is quite formal. There's a different headline and neckline whereas there are no set steps in the "dirty dancing".

Those scenes are created to look spontaneous and quite free even though obviously we've rehearsed a lot together to make it look like that."

Roseanna says she still gets goosebumps watching Claire and Gareth's dance scenes together. "I love getting to watch these guys doing the dirty dancing right at the beginning," she says. "The energy draws Baby in and when I'm watching, I feel a bit like the audience, wondering how they do it."

Gareth says he enjoys dancing both styles, but says there is much more to the production.

"One of the core things this show has is energy and the dancing correctly portrays that," he says. "With the live band and the lighting, songs like Do You Love Me? all of that put together gives it that energy.

"It all helps creates an atmosphere so that the audience join you on this journey to that final moment of Time of My Life and 'that' lift. People enjoy that, people enjoy coming to watch something that isn't too heavy."

Claire agrees. "There's something for everyone," she says. "Some people might tune into the musicians, others the dancing and without realising it, it all builds up to that final moment of the lift."

Each of the cast members has their own particular favourite scene. For Gareth, it's when the band strikes up Time Of My Life, which always reminds him how "privileged" he is to be part of it.

For Roseanna, it's the moment Johnny publicly declares how Baby has helped shape his opinions and change his outlook on life – just moments after the most famous line from the film, 'Nobody puts Baby in the corner'.

"I love it when Johnny comes back and says there is someone who has taught him that there are people who are willing to stand up for others, no matter what it costs them," she says.

"For Baby, that's what it has all been about. We see her desperately trying to help people out. That's what she sees as important in this world.

"Then this guy she finds very attractive comes out with it and she's like 'That is exactly true, that is what I think is important'. That bit always gets me."

Claire says: "Yeah, everyone loves that because it's the guy coming back for the girl. That's the ideal, isn't it, the knight in shining armour?"

Dirty Dancing might be set in 1963, but many of the issues it tackles still resonate today: forbidden love, class differences, equality, abortion and civil rights. Roseanna says that different audiences relate to different topics.

"There's all the fun stuff but there are a lot of things that I feel connected to, such as the scenes where she is talking about voting and black civil rights," she says.

"There are those issues that are still present today, particularly the abortion issue in Ireland.

"There's something different about every venue and the things they relate to."

Playing the role of Johnny Castle turned Patrick Swayze into a household name and international sex symbol.

When Gareth landed the role, he underwent a massive body transformation to stay true to the character. He hired a personal trainer, worked out twice a day, 12 times a week, doing cardio and weights, and changed his diet.

"Because I was leading the show, I wanted my physique to be the best, to be as aesthetically pleasing as I could possibly get it," he says.

"A lot of it was around increased muscular stability and joint strength so I could do a long run without getting injured.

"I underwent a three-month body transformation, going from 92kg to 82.3kg then back up to a solid 88kg. I massively educated myself in nutrition and training.

"It totally inspired me about my life and the way I want to be portrayed as a professional. It was important to me and taught me so much about looking good on stage.

"I'm so proud of the fact that I'm part of this show, so I take it very seriously. We all do. It's an amazing production to be in and we just hope everyone who comes to see it enjoys it as much as do."

  • Dirty Dancing, at the Grand Opera House, Belfast, from tonight until Saturday, August 16. For tickets, tel: 028 9024 1919 or log on to www.goh.co.uk

An uplifting classic

  • A year after the release of the film in 1987, Dirty Dancing became the number one video rental and became the first film to sell more than a million copies on video
  • In May 2007 a survey by Britain's Sky Movies listed Dirty Dancing as number one in the list of 'Women's most-watched films'
  • The film and show's closing song, (I've Had) The Time of My Life has been listed as the third most popular song played at funerals in the UK
  • Sarah Jessica Parker and Billy Zane both auditioned for the parts of Baby and Johnny
  • During filming of the lake scenes where the couple practise the lift, there were no close-ups of Swayze and Grey. It was October, it was cold and their lips were too blue
  • Val Kilmer was offered the role of Johnny but turned it down
  • The movie cost just $5m (£3m) to make. It earned $64m (£37.7m) at the US box office and a total of $170m (£100m) worldwide
  • In 2007, a 20th anniversary line of Dirty Dancing merchandise included infant clothing and ladies' T-shirts, emblazoned with the slogan, 'Nobody puts Baby in a corner'

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