Oh, to relive the music/message/love story/dance (any combination thereof) mashup movies of the 80’s! Many of us Music Movie loving old-schoolers remember Jennifer Beals dancing for her life in Flashdance (1983), Tom Cruise’s infamous underwear wearing floor slide in Risky Business (1983), the hip-hop, R&B and rap infused themes of Beat Street and Breakin’ (both 1984), Kevin Bacon fighting for prom and love in Footloose (1984), the loosely based and celebrity filled account of Russell Simmon’s story in Krush Groove (1985), Taimak’s fierce martial artistry and the late Vanity’s “7th Heaven” in The Last Dragon (1985), and then came 1987’s “Dirty Dancing” – when we learned that some got quite freaky in the Catskill Mountains in the 60’s and “nobody puts Baby in the corner!”
Flash forward 30 years, and not only are we getting the chance to relive the magic of Dirty Dancing in a new ABC network film set for a May 24 release – with Abigail Breslin and Colt Prattes taking on the iconic roles of Baby Houseman and Johnny Castle that were immortalized by Jennifer Grey and the late Patrick Swayze on the big screen – but there is a touring production of the beloved classic, and Philadelphia is lucky enough to host the musical at the Merriam Theater one week before the TV movie premieres.
MMT took time to chat with Jennifer Mealani Jones, who’s taking on the role of Penny Johnson (remember that character? the pregnancy, the abortion, the scandal!) when the show hits town and who also has several ties to the Philly area. Ms. Jones, a native of Ellicott City, MD, attended the prestigious University of the Arts in Center City, was a Philadelphia 76er Dream Team dancer, as well as a member of the famed Philadelphia Dance Company (Philandanco).
Dirty Dancing has enamored audiences for three generations, officially turning 30 this August. Were you a fan of the original film and, if so, what impacted you most?
“I was a huge fan of the original film. I felt like I related to Baby so much when I was younger. I was shy but passionate, not very graceful but hardworking, and I had the hair to match. I also was the wallflower that was attracted to all the bad boys I never thought I had a chance with (laughs).”
What do you most look forward to while bringing this project back to Philly, an area where you once resided/went to school?
“I can’t wait for my professors, people I used to dance/work with, and all my friends still in Philly to come see the show. I can only hope I’ve grown since college. Also, most of the people above have only seen me dance and now they’ll see me act. I am really looking forward to some feedback.”
What can audiences expect from the stage adaptation that varies from the film?
“It’s everything you loved in the movie plus so much more. There are more dance scenes, live singing, and you get a closer look into Johnny and Baby’s relationship, Baby’s parents, Billy(Johnny’s cousin) and Elizabeth (one of the staff gals), and all the staff kids too.”
Tell me about some of your favorite Philly hangouts and where are you recommending the cast/crew visit while they are here?
“I have so many. I’ll definitely stop by Bru, Han Dynasty, Jose Pistolas, Honeys and PYT in Northern Liberties, Passyunk Square for brunch, Silk City for sure, and some spots in Fishtown because I hear it’s changed so much since I lived in Philly. The list is endless but it’s safe to say I’ll be eating well while I’m visiting.
I’ll send the cast to South Philly to get a cheesesteak, either Pat’s or Geno’s, and tell them to stop into Garage Bar. Of course they’ll have to take a walk around Rittenhouse Square, maybe check out Xfinity Live on a Saturday night, and go up and down all the bars and restaurants on Sansom street. Oh and Old City! I used to frequent Lucy’s. I just hope most of these places are still here.”
MMT signature question: If you could portray any artist (any genre/art form) – past or present – who would it be and why?
“That is so hard. My first instinct is to say Gwen Verdon, but I would do anything to do some of the numbers Cyd Charisse performed and oh my goodness Chita! Chita Rivera!
I think out of all of the Goddesses though, past and present, I would go with Barbra Streisand. Funny Girl is my favorite movie and she is just my favorite woman – with her power, class, and humor. I would do anything for a voice like hers.”
Check out Jennifer Mealani Jones as Penny and the rest of the Dirty Dancing – The Classic Story On Stage cast at the Merriam Theater May 16-21. Tickets and additional information are available now at kimmelcenter.org.