The dirt on ‘Dancing’ stars

By Sara Harvey

International touring in Australia, New Zealand, London and Toronto has made the coming-of-age love story of “Dirty Dancing-The Classic Story on Stage” a hit, and now its fancy footwork has landed in Chicago.

The story takes place in the summer of 1963, an idyllic time just before the changes in America brought by the Kennedy assassination and Vietnam. Johnny, a determined dancer from the wrong side of the tracks, meets Baby, a girl from a well-to-do family staying at a resort. The dancing teacher sweeps Baby off her feet-literally. Her family thinks Johnny is a lowlife, and that Baby is too young to understand her own feelings-a story of love and change brought from the silver screen to the stage four years ago in Australia.

Ben Mingay plays the role of Billy Kostecki, Johnny’s cousin, and has been touring with the production since its inception. Originally trained in opera voice at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, he quit his full-time job as a construction worker and part-time rock band as vocalist to perform on stage.

Katlyn Carlson portrays Lisa Houseman, Baby’s sister. As an English major from the University of Chicago, she said her appreciation of characters in books goes hand-in-hand with her love for playing a character on the stage.

Almost a month after it debuted in Chicago for its U.S. tour, The Chronicle sat down to talk to Mingay and Carlson about their careers and how “Dirty Dancing” on stage is different from the 1987 film of the same name.

The Chronicle: Did you see the movie before you started this production?

Ben Mingay: I grew up with three older sisters who used to drag me to the movies. I saw it eight times at the movies-kicking and screaming, because I was really young. But eventually I loved it. The soundtrack is awesome. Every now and then I put it on for a bit of fun.

Katlyn Carlson: I had seen bits and pieces of it when I was younger, but I was such a little non-conformist kid and not a girly girl. But the day before my audition, I watched it, very cynically at first. But it was wonderful. It’s a great movie, and it’s so much fun. I was really excited to go into my audition thinking, “People were right, this is a great movie.”

What are your characters like in the stage production?

BM: My character is Billy Kostecki-and I explain it this way because it’s really the only way people understand it-I carry the watermelons. I’ve never really played anything like this. All the parts I played in Australia seem to be more bad-guy roles, and mean-looking dudes. It was just a stroke of luck that I got to play this character, because they wanted me to sing “Time of My Life” and I originally auditioned for Robbie, the waiter. But they got me to read for Billy so I could be in the show and sing the songs; so that was interesting.

KC: It’s a more expanded role than what’s in the movie. The whole family unit, actually, has more to do in the stage show. Lisa is a traditional girl who takes herself seriously, and probably thinks she’s a little bit smarter and funnier than she is. But it’s a blast to play.

I think my parents are really thrilled that this is the cleanest role I’ve had in a long time. I play a lot of delinquents and loose women, crass girls … so it’s a nice departure. [Laughs] But I get to be goofy in this show and that’s fun.

What’s so special about this show, and how has it evolved?

BM: It is a spectacle. The sets, and the lighting, it’s huge. It’s amazing what they’ve done with the set and the space. It is like watching the movie, but it’s like you’re there. Sometimes when people try to adapt a movie to the stage or vice versa, I think people stray from the path a bit too much. And therefore the people who are going to see what they originally loved …

KC: They feel cheated!

BM: … Feel cheated and get something different, but this is totally not the case. Whoever saw the movie and loved it, they’ll love the stage show. The script is basically the movie and a little bit of extra stuff as well.

KC: It is amazing what they’ve done with the set and the lights, it’s almost like being at a rock show in a way. It’s a huge, huge spectacle. They’ve done some really clever solutions to the things that you don’t ever think they’d be able to put on stage.

BM: I think everybody always wonders how we do the water scene, the lift in the water, and that sort of stuff. Back in Australia, when we first started this four years ago, I was actually one of the “water bearers,” which was carrying silk, which was blue, across the stage and waving it like water. It’s come a long way since then, let’s put it that way.

Ben, how is the show experience in the United States different from everywhere else?

BM: It’s very different. It’s just been getting better and better every step of the way. When we started in Australia people were a bit unsure about how to take it. They were still workshopping it. It was sort of the basis and the same script and everything, but it’s evolved so much. Especially now that it’s in America where the civil rights [movement took place] … it’s in the film and the show, which hasn’t been understood that well in other countries, whereas here people can relate to that. I think it’s bringing it home, where it was intended for the audience to receive it.

Katlyn, what’s it like acting in the city where you went to school?

KC: It’s amazing. I love Chicago and for it to be starting here is really incredible. Chicago is such an amazing theater town and it’s an incredibly receptive audience. Chicago just has such an incredible range of tiny storefront theaters to Broadway in Chicago stuff to everything in between. Everything is represented.

What’s your theater backstory?

BM: I worked in construction, so it was sort of a random existence for a while there, singing in rock bands and stuff. I always liked to perform, but I was always still working full-time. I remember I had just this one opportunity to do a straight acting role. I was working construction, I was all set, and heading towards the house with the picket fence, I suppose. And then I quit it all to do this gig for no money at all, and everybody thought it was crazy. It took a while, but you just gotta keep at it and get there.

KC: I like absorbing books, stories, characters and people. I think that plays into my love for acting, because it’s basically the same thing. Every time you read a book, it’s “How would I approach this from an acting standpoint?” Both of them gave me a new perspective on the other one. They’ve definitely gone hand in hand.

What do you love most about your job?

KC: Doing what we do is incredible because there are few other professions out there that are always temporary. You get to go through the whole process over and over again. The process is often the best part of the whole thing.It’s meeting a new group of people and falling into this family relationship with this new group, and going through the excitement and frustrations of rehearsals. It just happens over and over again, and it’s incredibly fortunate that we get to have that experience.

BM: Every time I get up there and do a show, it’s like a massive adrenaline rush, a feeling of ultimate euphoria, and you’ve got so much energy when you get up there, there’s no limits to what you can do. You can always put more energy into something. The people we work with are so amazing. We are like a family because you have to work so closely with everyone. Everyone has to show such emotion on stage, you just end up being a family. And of course everyone has to be courteous to each other because we’re working like 12 hours a day when we’re rehearsing.

It’s an amazing bond. It’s sort of going back to college or school in a way because any normal adult would not be able to go and be sort of thrust into a group of total strangers and have to work with them in a really close sense.

You get to work closely with a bunch of amazing talented people and you get that rush eight times a week. We work at different schedules so we can go to different shops during the day, which is cool.

Sometimes you can get a little bit jaded in this industry but I think it doesn’t take long for you to pull yourself up and go, “If I was doing anything else, I’d be miserable.”

KC: It’s about finding the people that you love and having fun and just living in each moment.

“Dirty Dancing-the Classic Story on Stage” runs at the Cadillac Palace Theatre, 151 W. Randolph St., through Jan. 17. Ticket prices start at $35. For more information, visit