“Dirty Dancing” runs Nov. 25-30 at the Fox Theatre.
WHEN VOCALIST Jennlee Shallow opens “Dirty Dancing,” she is, as the song says, really experiencing “This Magic Moment.”
She well remembers being 12 or 13 and finding the movie Dirty Dancing enthralling, even on a small black-and-white TV. “I could never have imagined I would become part of this story,” she says.
A native of Trinidad and Tobago, Shallow grew up with little on the Caribbean island of St. Vincent. Music, she says, “was my only escape from living in a shack and not having the perfect life. My mom was a single parent with four kids. Dirty Dancing had all the music I get excited about. That music meant freedom to me. It made me so happy.”
She may have dreamed of a singing career, but there was no money for formal training. Nor were there dance lessons, although “if you don’t know how to dance then you are not on the island.” Her experience came from singing in small church choirs.
When Shallow began college at the American Musical and Dramatic Academy in Los Angeles, a teacher urged her to attend international auditions for The Lion King.
“I knew nothing about an audition,” Shallow says. “I had not brought any sheet music. They asked me what was I going to sing, and I told them I had no idea. They asked if I knew ‘Amazing Grace’ and yes, I did, so that’s what I sang.”
Shallow beat out thousands of others at those auditions. College would wait (she did eventually finish). She was flown to Germany to join The Lion King cast there, understudying the role of Nala, then taking over the part there and in Australia. When her mother saw the show, it was the first time she’d seen her daughter perform outside of church.
“I learned by standing in the wings, watching the others onstage,” Shallow says. “That is how I learned everything.”
IN DIRTY DANCING, Shallow is primarily the lead singer. She plays Elizabeth, an employee at the Catskills resort where 17-year-old “Baby” vacations with her family in the summer of 1963.
Shallow sees her role as that of the storyteller and says, “I also see myself as the inner voice of Baby.”
Unlike most musicals, the lead characters in Dirty Dancing — Baby and Johnny and the rest — do not break into song to express themselves. Baby’s story unfolds through a lineup of more than 40 tunes — pop, soul, R&B and traditional folk. Shallow calls it “a musical explosion.” A similar “storyteller” does the same for Johnny.
Another difference from most musicals: Some numbers are performed live, while others come from recorded tracks. Audiences will be able to tell which is which. The memorable tunes from the 1987 Jennifer Grey-Patrick Swayze movie are here, from “Hungry Eyes” and “You Don’t Own Me” to “Yes!” and “(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life.” Other songs that fit the story and time period have been added, including the Drifters’ “Save the Last Dance for Me” and Marvin Gaye’s “Stubborn Kind of Fellow.”
Some attention has been paid to beefing up the political and social concerns of the day, which “have always been intrinsically tied in with the music of the era,” says Conrad Helfrich, the show’s music supervisor.
ONE GOAL IN CREATING the live show was to break down the barrier “that inevitably exists between a movie and the viewer,” Helfrich says. “In this production, the audience is effectively in the movie.”
As Helfrich sees it, the music “purely exists to support the main characters, their thoughts, their hopes and their aspirations.”
In her rendering of “You Don’t Own Me,” for example, Shallow expresses Baby’s intensity. It’s presented, says Helfrich, in an innovative and unexpected way.
Most come to Dirty Dancing knowing what’s going to happen, Shallow says. “They know the story, they know so many of the lines, they want this music and they may even sing along. They can’t help it. They even love waiting for the iconic moment because they know it’s going to happen.” Be it a famous line or a famous lift.
“Feeding off the audience’s wild energy and excitement, that’s what drives me,” Shallow says. “We were all Baby’s age, and we had our first crush, so we can relate. Then you’ve got the combination of the provocative dancing and this rich collection of music. Just so many layers coming together.”