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‘Dirty’ tuner takes first steps Down Under

Show's creator, writer Bergstein says Oz prod'n is not a tryout

SYDNEY — Seventeen years after the motion picture shimmied its way into the psyches of little girls the world over, “Dirty Dancing” is to be realized live onstage.

And it’s not premiering Off Broadway or out-of-town but at the 1,100-seat Theater Royal in Sydney, some tens of thousands of miles from its setting in the Catskills.

Show’s creator, writer and rights holder Eleanor Bergstein, a New Yorker, has been camped in digs on the cliffs at Sydney’s Bondi Beach since pre-production began in March.

She mentions people are suggesting the show is being given a soft launch “to get it ready for the big world,” but immediately rejects that notion: “It’s not a tryout.”

Veteran producer Kevin Jacobsen concurs: “She didn’t want to launch this on Broadway, and I wouldn’t, either.”

The lower cost of workshopping in Australia was one consideration, but Jacobsen also wants to see it play Vegas.

“(Broadway shows) rely on critics, and they automatically go out on a regional tour and so on. We’ll do Australia, then London and Germany and Japan, and we’ll go into the US. I think it’s ideal for Las Vegas. ‘Dirty Dancing’ is such name and the demographics are spot-on.”

According to Jacobsen, Bergstein took little convincing.

“I said, we have great dancers, good lighting designers and choreographers, why don’t we launch this in Australia? I’m sure it’ll be so big people will come from all around the world.”

Lesley Downie is attempting to broker, on behalf of Jacobsen Entertainment, a deal to stage the show in London, and six potential producers attended opening night on Nov. 18. Stage Holdings is co-producer in mainland Europe and a U.S. deal is pending.

Miami-based rock promoter Jack Utsick has pulled out of his intention to co-produce the Australian show as part of his year-old co-prod pact with Jacobsen, but the show’s exec producer, Michael Jacobsen (Kevin’s son), says that deal remains intact.

Kevin Jacobsen said, “When I came to the realization that maybe Jack’s not going to come good, in accordance with our agreement, I went out and hit the road.”

Michael Jacobsen adds, “We filled the gap through financing from our family and private investment.”

Show cost A$6.5 million ($4.9 million) to launch, including obtaining rights to 51 pieces of music: “More songs than in the movie!” enthuses Kevin Jacobsen.

Lions Gate, which owns the title “Dirty Dancing,” permitted its use in association with the show. Not that the Jacobsens had any problem with the alternative moniker: “Time of My Life.”

Script from the iconic film has been altered only slightly for the stage. Also, Brit helmer Mark Wing-Davey has used multimedia devices, such as big video screens with live feeds, to remain faithful to the film.

Bergstein surprised even herself by choosing an all-Australian cast: “I had it put in my contract that I could use four Americans.” Instead she chose “Neighbors” actress Kym Valentine and ex-Australian Ballet soloist Josef Brown for the roles immortalized by Jennifer Grey and Patrick Swayze. Other principal thesps are Ernie Bourne, Leonie Page and Ronne Arnold, an American based in Oz since the 1960s.

Casting was driven by the need to find actors who looked like real people “but who moved like angels.”

The long search for creatives finally turned up choreographer Kate Champion, music supervisor Chong Lim, music director Conrad Helfrich, costume designer Jennifer Irwin and lighting designer Nigel Levings.

“Dirty Dancing” has had a stellar ride on homevid and DVD, and its soundtrack remains one of the best-selling in RCA’s history.

On the box office front, “Dirty Dancing” has sold more than 90,000 tickets in 10 weeks; it’s sold out through the end of the year. As Kevin Jacobsen puts it: “I shouldn’t say at last, because I’ve had some big wins, but at last I’ve got a winner.”

He’s ready for a hit. After taking Jacobsen Entertainment public two years ago, the veteran has had a rocky ride. Company’s losses on “The Witches of Eastwick” and a Bruce Springsteen tour were widely publicized due to the public reporting rules of the Australian Stock Exchange. The structure of the company has since been altered to ensure its negotiations are confidential.

With hindsight, Jacobsen says going public was a mistake. “In Australia, no one’s interested in dealing with a public company, including international agents. I imagined initially Australia could support a public company that had theater, pop concerts, some publishing, copyright ownership, television, really get stuck into the convention market and have an entertainment complex company. But there’s no way you can do that with the regulations.”

For her part, Bergstein speaks highly of Kevin and his brother Col Joye, also a partner in the family business. She was drawn to the family’s empathy and genuine feeling for the material. Why else would the New Yorker spend most of a year abroad? She was in no hurry to produce the stage show; after all, she’s waited until now.

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