It was a 1987 B-movie that was hated by test audiences and nearly went straight to video.
Then, almost from the moment of its cinematic release, Dirty Dancing became a global phenomenon, attracting followers with a devotion that bordered on the religious. It rejuvenated musical careers, boosted attendance at dance studios, won an Oscar and immediately prompted a TV series, later followed by a prequel and a made-for-TV remake. The film's total box office take has since recouped its original budget 35 times over.
Seventeen years after its release, it also — inevitably, perhaps — gave rise to a musical, Dirty Dancing: The Classic Story on Stage. That show would experience similar success, breaking theatrical box office records, enjoying sellout runs in multiple countries and reaffirming the near-universal appeal of the story of a coddled ingenue learning to mambo with a rebel from the wrong side of the tracks.
Anaïs Blake is starring in the musical adaptation's current U.S. national tour, which arrives in Spokane Thursday, April 26, and runs through the weekend. She plays Johnny Castle's (Aaron Patrick Craven) dance partner, Penny Johnson, whose unexpected pregnancy forces her to step aside from staff dance rehearsals at an upscale Catskills resort in 1963. Headstrong but naive resort guest Frances "Baby" Houseman (Kaleigh Courts) volunteers to fill in for Penny, marking the beginning of a sometimes bittersweet romantic relationship between Johnny and Baby.
"The story is a coming-of-age story for Baby," says Blake, "so the focus is definitely on her. Baby looks up to Penny and sees her as an ideal, but what Baby doesn't know is that Penny has her own issues. What ends up happening is that, ... by helping Penny with her issues, Baby grows up through that. It's one of the ways the story helps Baby to become what she is."
This show is a coming of age of sorts for Blake, too. Before Dirty Dancing, her primary focus had been ballet. Yet it was while performing with Florida's Sarasota Ballet that Blake got her "first taste of musical theater" through a collaboration with the Asolo Repertory Theatre in Susan Stroman's innovative Contact. That ultimately helped her land the role as Penny, leading to what she describes as a "whirlwind" transition between the worlds of ballet and theater.
"I went from dancing in a ballet company, [rehearsing] six or seven hours a day, performing a big production once a month for a weekend. This is the first time in my life where we rehearsed for about three weeks and then went out on the road and started performing nonstop. It's been amazing but it's been challenging," she says.
"It's made me learn a lot about myself. I'm used to a full company class, [whereas] this is 100 percent on me, so I really had to become self-disciplined. It's a lot more about learning to take responsibility for myself, making sure that I warm up on my own even if there's only 15 minutes."
Blake admits that her own — charmed might not be hyperbolic — life of modeling and dancing has put her at several removes from the character she's playing. But the intrinsic "love for dancing" she shares with Penny is what unites her with her fictional counterpart.
"I've had a different career than Penny had," she says, "but at the end of the day I've always found that I was dancing for myself. I was never dancing for the director, never proving or trying to compete for something, because that's not what's going to make you successful or happy. I understand that in Penny — that it's a passion and love of dance."
For fans of the film, whose love of Dirty Dancing tends to go far beyond casual, Blake says that the stage adaptation offers the ideal mix of the fresh and the familiar — not least because it was penned by original screenwriter Eleanor Bergstein. Classics like "Do You Love Me?" and hits like "(I've Had) The Time of My Life" and "Hungry Eyes" feature alongside songs that tie into new subplots.
"You'll hear a few more than Eleanor brought in for certain scenes. There's a scene that [references] the 1960s where we have a singer who's added to the story to represent some of the other issues that are happening at the time. She sings a beautiful 'We Shall Overcome' that gives me chills every single night," says Blake.
"You will leave having had the time of your life." ♦
Dirty Dancing: The Classic Story on Stage • April 26–29; Thur-Fri at 7:30 pm; Sat at 2 pm and 7:30 pm; Sun 1 pm and 6:30 pm • $39.50-$79.50 • INB Performing Arts Center • 334 W. Spokane Falls Blvd. • inbpac.com • 279-7000