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Georgina Rich

Published 17 April 2008

It was the film that elicited a collective sigh from teenage girls around the world as the final credits rolled: leather-clad Johnny came back from holiday camp exile to extract Baby from her corner and dance with her, his way, to Bill Medley and Jennifer Warnes’s (I’ve Had) The Time Of My Life; Robbie the creep was finally exposed, Baby’s dad apologised to Johnny and they even did the lift. For all those who loved the film as much as she did, Caroline Bishop spoke to Georgina Rich, who has the enviable task of playing Baby in the new stage show of that classic film, Dirty Dancing…

It’s not like Hamlet,” Georgina Rich says at one point during our interview. That, it certainly is not, but auditioning for the role of Frances ‘Baby’ Houseman in the musical version of Dirty Dancing, Rich found saying some of the famous lines from the film as familiar as reading ‘to be or not to be’.

“I hadn’t watched it for 10,15 years maybe, but I did know the whole film by heart, and when it came to the audition there were certain famous scenes I had to do and I was like ‘oh I know this one’. It is quite strange actually,” she says. “The weirdest thing was the read-through at the beginning of the rehearsal period where you all sat around and read the famous lines – everyone kept laughing.”

Like most women of her generation, 30-year-old Rich grew up a huge fan of the 1987 film, in which idealistic tomboy Baby comes of age when she’s swept off her feet by dancer Johnny Castle while holidaying with her parents at a Butlins-style camp in 1963. The film made household names of its stars – Jennifer Grey and Patrick Swayze – and still captures the hearts of teenage girls nearly 20 years later, its lines arguably more familiar to them than any A-Level English text.

As if to drum home the point that Dirty Dancing is still as loved today as it ever was, the announcement that the film’s creator Eleanor Bergstein was finally to put her story on stage was met by fervour in the streets – long queues formed in Covent Garden when open auditions were held to find the cast – and ticket sales went through the roof before it was even cast.

"Hopefully the people that are coming want to have a good time, they’re not coming to criticise"

You would imagine that all this might be slightly daunting for someone just two years out of RADA and with only one West End role behind her. But Rich, looking very much the tomboy in faded jeans and a vintage t-shirt, seems very relaxed about the whole thing. “At the moment, because we’re still right in the middle of it, I can’t let myself be daunted by it; I’m trying to look at the positive side. And hopefully the people that are coming want to have a good time, they’re not coming to criticise, they want to see a good show, so hopefully that’s what we’ll give them.”

She auditioned for the role “for a laugh”, not thinking she’d be in with a chance, but wanting to put her dancing training to the test (she trained as a dancer for three years, from the age of 16) and have a story to tell her friends. She’d never done musical theatre before, hadn’t danced professionally for eight years, and wasn’t a well-known name. Yet she got the part, and now has the chance to step into the much-coveted shoes of Baby.

.It’s a role that Rich knows better than to mess with – the audience is coming to see Baby, as they know her in the film, complete with cut off shorts, perm and gawky smile, which leaves little open to interpretation. Rich seems happy with this, however: “I loved the film, so if I was coming to see it I would want to see the film on stage, I wouldn’t want to see someone saying I’m going to change it all. And also it’s there in the writing – we’re working with Eleanor Bergstein, she wrote and co-produced the film, wrote pretty much every line in the film and extra scenes as well, so she’s very much the heart of it. If I play it correctly, the heart of that character will remain the same because that’s what's written, you can’t make her something that she’s not because it wouldn’t make sense.”

It does raise the question then, why bother? If it’s simply the film on stage, then why not just stay home and watch the DVD? It’s not a question that the thousands of fans who have already bought tickets need answering, but Rich has an answer anyway. “I think because of the dancing in it, and also because of the score of the show which is brilliant, it works well as a live piece, it’s exciting. In a way, when you see dancing on film you miss the danger of it and the skill of it, because that distance makes it a bit safe, and it’s so exciting to actually see it done live in front of you – all those sexy, sweaty bodies and you’re right there in the room with them. I think in a way it’s better to see that live than to see it on film, because it’s such a physical show and it is so much about sensuality.”

Despite the similarities, translating the story on to the stage does inevitably require some adaptation. For example, while including immediately recognisable moves from the film, the choreography “is going to be different, and it’s going to be fuller and they’ll be more to it basically because it has to be really powerful live and fill the stage,” Rich says. There’s also more money in Bergstein’s pot now, compared to when she made the film, which lends the show endless possibilities for costumes and set. “The budget’s not so tight for this!” laughs Rich. All in all, it seems the show will be the film, only better.

"It’s so exciting to actually see it done live in front of you – all those sexy, sweaty bodies and you’re right there in the room with them"

But can Rich’s co-star, Josef Brown, be Patrick Swayze, only better? Johnny Castle, the sexy instructor who teaches Baby to dance when she stands in for his dance partner, was the boyfriend of choice for a generation of girls. Brown, the former Australian Ballet star who originated the role in the Australian production of Dirty Dancing and reprises it over here, has a tough act to follow. “He’s a brilliant dancer, he’s amazing,” gushes Rich. “His background is much more dance and my background is much more acting so it’s quite nice because we feed off each other that way.”

Like Rich, and like the original leads Swayze and Grey were at the time, Brown is unknown over here. “Dirty Dancing is the name, that’s what sells the show, so they don’t need someone famous to sell the show,” says Rich, by way of explanation. “People have such an emotional connection to the film, if you had someone famous that you had a different emotional connection with, it might not work so well. They want to be able to project that story on to you, and if you’re particularly famous that makes that job that little bit harder. Whereas no one knows who I am so it makes it easier, hopefully, to believe me in that role.”

After playing Baby everyone will certainly know who Rich is. It’s been a pretty meteoric rise to theatrical stardom since she graduated from RADA in 2004, which perhaps makes up for the time it took her to get round to applying for RADA in the first place. She left school in Dartford, Kent at 16 to indulge her love for dance by attending the London Studio Centre in King’s Cross: “I remember being in a ballet class and it was freezing and I had cramp, but then I thought, I could be in school, this is brilliant!” But after a couple of years trying to make it as a professional dancer, Rich decided she wanted to combine it with acting, “the storytelling side of it”, and eventually shrugged off friends’ pessimism and applied for RADA at the age of 24. After just one other West End role – that of Martin Jarvis and Diana Rigg’s daughter in Honour at the Wyndham’s earlier this year, Rich is now cast in one of the most eagerly awaited musicals of the year.

Her dance/acting background is the perfect match for a show like Dirty Dancing, which is not a musical in the traditional sense – Rich never sings – but which combines dance numbers with the storytelling that she loves. The nature of the story demands that Rich be a strong dancer – “they [the producers] have to feel safe that you can get to the end product” – but also be able to convincingly portray a girl who at first can’t dance, and gradually improves. “I think it’s quite difficult for brilliant dancers to dance badly, it goes against everything, whereas for me it’s not such a problem; I find that easy!” she laughs modestly.

“You have to remember how you feel when you’re learning [the dances],” she explains, “how frustrated you get, how difficult it is and how you feel such an idiot – you look around and there’s all these dancers in the room and you feel so mal-coordinated; but you think that’s fine, I just have to remember that feeling because that’s just how she feels. When you feel more confident you still have that feeling that you can draw on.”

"I think it’s quite difficult for brilliant dancers to dance badly, it goes against everything, whereas for me it’s not such a problem; I find that easy!"

Thousands of twenty- and thirty-something women are already paid up to come to the Aldwych and empathise with Rich as Baby – and no doubt feel a little envious. For Rich, it’s an important consequence of Dirty Dancing as a stage show that many non-theatregoers will come to the theatre, possibly for the first time. “With something like Dirty Dancing you already have an audience waiting for you, so I don’t know if that means any new musicals will suffer a little bit or if it will fuel people’s appetites for musicals,” she comments. “I know some people will come and see this who have never seen a musical in their life, and a lot of people will come to this who have never been to the theatre in their life. If they love it and they love the live experience then they might go and see something else. Getting people to go to the theatre, getting people to see something live – because it’s incredibly exciting the first time you see a live production – it’s an amazing thing.”

If this is anything to go by, Rich’s enthusiasm for the theatre may well rub off on those who come to see her. Talking about the show, she seems genuinely excited, and, as a true Dirty Dancing fan, she seems the ideal girl to do the role justice, to do what every other teenage girl in 1987 wanted to do – dance to (I’ve Had) The Time Of My Life with Johnny Castle. Rehearsing that, does she feel like she’s Baby? She smiles almost guiltily and whispers “Yeah, a little bit.”

Dirty Dancing – The Classic Story On Stage opens at the Aldwych on 24 October. em>CB

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