Theatre: Carlie is having time of her life

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From a young age growing up in Sheffield Carlie Milner dreamed of being a dancer but hardly Dirty Dancing.

Next week she returns to her home city on tour in Dirty Dancing – The Classic Story On Stage which comes to the Lyceum Theatre next week.

Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey in Dirty Dancing. Picture: AP Photo/Lionsgate Home Entertainment

Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey in Dirty Dancing. Picture: AP Photo/Lionsgate Home Entertainment

It is 30 years since the classic coming-of-age film became a surprise hit and shot the late Patrick Swayze to global stardom.

The setting is 1963 when 17-year-old Frances ‘Baby’ Houseman is on a family holiday in New York’s Catskill Mountains and falls for the resort’s charismatic dance instructor, Johnny Castle.

Baby and Johnny are fiercely independent young spirits from different worlds who come together in what will be the most challenging and triumphant summer of their lives. The passionnate story is accompanied by sexy dancing, and 35 hit songs including Hungry Eyes, Hey! Baby, Do You Love Me? and, of course, (I’ve Had) The Time Of My Life.

Carlie plays the role of Penny Johnson who is Johnny’s worldly-wise dance partner. In the movie Penny has become pregnant but the father has refused to pay for an abortion. It is Baby who provides the money as well as substituting for Penny in the dance duet with Johnny.

Abortion sounds strong stuff for a family-friendly stage musical.

“The story is the same,” confirms Carlie. “There’s not any fudging although you don’t actually see it but there’s a scene involving it. Unlike in the film I am in a bedroom that you can’t really see. It’s relevant to the plot especially since in the Sixties it was a huge deal.”

Dirty Dancing is Carlie’s first experience of musical theatre, having embarked on a different career path.

“I was about 12 when I decided I wanted to go the classical route,” she says. “I was at the Bayley Cox School of Dance from the age of three to 16 when it was still at Greystones.

“I did lots of practising at home when I was in my teens. I had lots of friends who also took dancing seriously and my siblings too. My brother and sister both have careers in dancing.”

At 16 she went for three years to the Elmhurst Ballet School which is associated with the Royal Ballet in Birmingham. That seems quite a young age to be away from home fending for herself. “I can’t imagine doing that now, I often wonder, ‘ how did I do that?’,” she laughs.

And so she embarked on a classical career that took in Sleeping Beauty with the Royal Ballet Birmingham, English National Ballet’s Swan Lake in the Royal Albert Hall and touring in the National Ballet of Ireland’s The Nutcracker.

“Your aspirations and goals change as you get older,” she continues. “I did bits and bobs and was on cruise ships for a few years which is really good experience because you learn all different styles of dance.”

Then came the chance to go into musical theatre. In 2014 she joined the cast of Dirty Dancing as understudy to Penny Johnson and over one and a half years found herself performing the role several times. When it was decided to revive the show last year she was offered the role of Penny.

“It was ideal for me in that it is heavily dance-based but there is also acting involved which was a challenge for me as I had never been to theatre school or anything so I had to learn as I have gone on.

“It just shows it’s not impossible to pick things up later on in life,” says the 30-year-old. I am fortunate to have worked with some great actors around me.”

Since its Australian debut in 2004, Dirty Dancing – The Classic Story On Stage, has become a worldwide phenomenon, consistently breaking box office records. The first UK tour was in 2011.

This new production has enjoyed a West End Christmas season and international dates as well as touring the UK.

“It has been re-imagined,” explains Carlie. “It’s the same script but there’s a different set (by Italian designer Roberto Comotti), choreographer (Gillian Bruce) and director (Federico Bellone). It’s more physical and more visual effects.”

Lewis Griffiths, most recently seen on the Lyceum stage as Nick Massi in the UK tour of Jersey Boys, plays Johnny Castle, with Katie Eccles as Baby.

“My mum and dad are still in Hunter’s Bar and I will be staying there while we’re in Sheffield. And I still have lots of friends here,” says the former Hunters Bar and High Storrs pupil.

One of the attractions of Dirty Dancing is that it has a double nostalgia, she points out, the Sixties and Eighties and appeals to different ages.

Dirty Dancing is at the Lyceum Theatre from Monday to Saturday.