German auds cheer pic-turned-tuner

HAMBURG, Germany “Mein Baby gehort zu mir, ist das klar?” It might not have the same ring as “Nobody puts Baby in a corner,” but the folks in Deutschland love it.

After a successful 14-month run in Australia, the stage version of the 1980s cult classic “Dirty Dancing” is mamboing into Germany, with Blighty, France, Holland, Italy and Spain soon to follow.

Even before the $6.5 million show’s preem at the 2,000-seat musical theater Neue Flora in Hamburg March 26, Teuton producer Stage Entertainment had sold 290,000 tickets, more than any musical production in Europe.

Anyone who ever stereotyped the Germans as buttoned-up should observe the unique spectacle of a couple thousand Teutons rhythmically clapping along to “I’ve Had the Time of My Life.” That factor, as much as the show’s buoyant staging and sexy dance moves, is the real cultural experience of “Dirty Dancing” in Hamburg.

“We’ve had nine previews here so far, and every time we’ve had wild standing ovations,” says “Dirty Dancing” scribe Eleanor Bergstein. She decided to create the stage show 17 years after the release of the film, which she wrote and co-produced, retaining adaptation rights.

“The movie is more popular now than it was when it came out,” explains Bergstein, who based the film largely on her own experiences growing up in New York. “There are clubs of people who’ve seen it over 1,000 times. The film means something really central to them.”

The precise reasons that fans obsess about a girl who experiences her sexual awakening with the help of a dance teacher at a Catskills summer camp remain a mystery to many people, but Bergstein has an explanation for the “Dirty Dancing” phenomenon:

“Everybody has a secret dancer inside them that they believe connects them to the world,” suggests the former teen dance contest winner and ballroom dancing instructor, who, like the character played by Jennifer Grey in the movie, was called Baby until age 21. “That’s one of the reasons the film had such a claim on people’s imagination.”

The story certainly had a claim on the Teuton audience at the media performance the night before the official opening. Lines from the film were greeted with roaring and clapping, and iconic scenes such as Baby practicing her mambo moves on the bridge brought cheers. The entrance of the Patrick Swayze character, Johnny, played by testosterone-pumped Martin van Bentem, had the frauleins whistling and applauding.

“However successful the film has been all over the world, it’s been seven times more successful in Germany from the day it opened,” says Bergstein, explaining the decision to start the show’s European rollout in Hamburg.

Bergstein found many of the 45 dancers who make up the German ensemble through an open casting call that she says drew 8,000 hopefuls.

She expects a similar response in London, where the show opens Sept. 29 at the Aldwych Theater. Also in talks to install local versions of the show in France, Italy, Spain and Russia, as well as organize a tour of China and Japan with the Aussie cast, Bergstein is fast becoming a one-woman franchise.

The world-premiere Australian staging, which ran from November 2004 through early March, played to north of 95% capacity in Sydney, Melbourne and Perth and 98% in Brisbane, selling more than 750,000 tickets in the four cities. The production then transferred to New Zealand, opening strongly in Auckland March 30.

Bergstein is starting to train people and extend her creative team, which currently includes choreographer Kate Champion and helmer Paul Garrington, “so as we go on to other territories we have enough people to set up the show.” She’s also trying to figure out how to approach the U.S. market, particularly Broadway.

She says she’s already met with “every” Broadway producer but couldn’t find a common ground. “Their idea was to make it into a traditional musical, but I was not interested in that,” states Bergstein, who believes turning “Dirty Dancing” into a classical musical with people singing to each other would have betrayed her loyal fan base.

“This is reality-based, and people in the story relate to music the way they do in real life,” she explains. “They don’t break out in songs and there’s no unison dancing. Everyone is dancing to their own movements, so the audience has the feeling they can do it.”

As “Dirty Dancing” gathers momentum in Europe, Bergstein hopes Broadway producers will see that her take on the material is working. However, she thinks it’s most likely that she’ll first stage the show out of town before taking it to Broadway. “Let it get its legs and then do Broadway.”

(Michaela Boland in Sydney contributed to this report.)

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