The fuse of a firework might be dipped in the same lacquer that gives a guitar its glorious shimmer under the stage lights, but it’s what’s inside the fuse that makes it sizzle. Similarly, Jennifer Mealani Jones is a striking young woman who has an incredible chemistry that blazes within her. She is a spellbinding artist who performs with a dazzling electricity.
Today, Tuesday, May 16, the former NBA 76ers Dream Team dancer returns to Philadelphia in the stage version of Eleanor Bergstein’s beloved “Dirty Dancing.” August 21 will mark the 30th anniversary of the film’s release, making this show one of the most highly anticipated productions to hit The Kimmel Center’s Merriam Theater this season. Jennifer plays Penny Johnson in the show, which will have 8 performances from now till Sunday, May 21. [Tickets available HERE.]
“I went to The University of the Arts,” Jennifer told Entertaining Options. “While I was there, I was a Sixers Dancer. When I graduated, I danced with Philadanco and I also worked with Gunnar Montana, a Philadelphia-based choreographer and performance artist who also happens to be my best friend.”
Additionally, Jones was featured on Season 10 of FOX’s popular “So You Think You Can Dance.”
“I like to go out there and tell a story, and I hope that it has an effect on people,” Jennifer noted. “As performers, we are always trying to evoke something whether we are speaking or singing or just moving our bodies.”
When she was working on a production with Gunnar Montana, the two were always pushing not only the limits of human expression, but the limits of human endurance as well. The artist talked about one show that was particularly challenging.
“Gunnar told me, ‘Everyone’s walking in and you’re the floor… But they don’t know that you’re the floor because you’re going to lay under a plastic sheet for 20 minutes with one hole to breathe out of. And then you’re going to get up and dance.’ I almost passed out every time we rehearsed it! But I did it because I believe in what he does.”
Besides possessing the strength and endurance needed to pull off the demanding choreography in these productions, Jennifer also had to be daring enough to fully embrace her roles. Gunnar’s art resides on the fringes of culture, frequently tackling subject matter that others might consider too risqué. In order to convincingly bring the art to life, Jones had to be bold to the point of fearless.
“It’s funny that you bring up me having the balls to work with Gunnar because there was this one show we did back when I was in college where I had to dance in a tub for 15 minutes,” she informed. “A few months ago, we redid that bathtub project. I’ve been doing ‘Dirty Dancing’ eight times a week since September. I’m as strong as a bull! Revisiting that project was a humbling experience because it was not as easy to throw myself around in a porcelain bathtub as it used to be. I could do that when I was 19, but now that I’m 25 — it doesn’t feel like I’m that much older — I’m not used to doing that anymore! I perform on stage in heels and a pretty dress, I don’t roll around on cement like I used to,” she laughed.
In 2014, Jennifer realized that to achieve what she wanted, something had to change.
“Philly has the most incredible art scene anywhere,” she enthused. “The thing that is so amazing about the city is its live performances. Philly has the most amazing art shows, the most amazing dance shows, and the most amazing drag shows. But LA has the industry. There are commercials, music videos, and movies. I like it all. That’s why I moved to LA.”
“It was really surprising to book a musical theater job in LA because I never even did anything like that when I lived back on the east coast. But anything’s possible out there, right?”
Initially, taking on a principle role that involved dialogue was a bit daunting for an artist who was primarily a dancer.
“When I first got the role, I had a little bit of a hard time because I wasn’t treating it like I was an actor. I would just go up there and say my lines,” Jennifer recalled. “We have some really phenomenal mentors on the road with us and I had to learn a lot about acting. There was all this extra homework that you had to do. I learned you don’t just mimic the character from the movie, you have to bring your own perspective to it.”
“One of the biggest things that helped me was learning to listen. When you’re speaking to someone normally, if they speak back to you, you’re going to listen to what they say and react off of that. Because I’d never acted before, I’d just wait for someone to say their line, then I’d say mine back. When it clicked for me that you’re actually listening to this other person and you’re supposed to react, that was a big moment for me. That’s why a show is going to be different every single night because if they give you something different, you’re going to respond differently.”
When asked what has been her favorite road moment to date, Jennifer responded, “There have been so many! We are getting to see so many great cities I would otherwise never have a chance to experience. Sioux Falls, South Dakota is such a beautiful city. I remember every store. There are so many cool little pockets of America that are all filled with so much culture and art.”
For a little bit of trivia, Jones revealed that the cast has dubbed this tour, the “State of Emergency” tour because they’ve been in a couple of cities when tornado warnings were issued and there was one time when a hurricane forced them to evacuate. Additionally, they were in Charlotte, North Carolina when the riots broke out last fall.
“Don’t worry, we’re not bringing any bad luck or natural disasters with us to Philly,” Jennifer laughed. “I’ve played the Kimmel Center before with Philadanco and I lived there for six years. Philly has a very special place in my heart because it’s where I started my career. Whether it was on the ground on the fringe scene or dancing at the stadium in front of 14,000 people, I just have so many wonderful memories and I’m really excited to be coming back.”
In closing, Jennifer expressed, “The cast we have is magical. There’s such chemistry between Johnny and Baby that it kind of makes you uncomfortable in your seat. There are so many things that you don’t get to see in the movie. The relationships are more intimate and you get to learn about Baby’s parents and her sister, Lisa — she is phenomenal! Plus there’s more singing and dancing. If I had to sum it up, I’d say with ‘Dirty Dancing: The Classic Story On Stage,’ you get the movie and so much more!”
“Dirty Dancing” opens on Tuesday, May 16 at the Merriam Theater in Philadelphia. [Tickets available HERE.] The dates and times are as follows:
Tuesday, May 16 at 7:30 p.m.
Wednesday, May 17 at 7:30 p.m.
Thursday, May 18 at 7:30 p.m.
Friday, May 19 at 8:00 p.m.
Saturday, May 20 at 2:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m.
Sunday, May 21 at 1:00 p.m. and 6:30 p.m.
Note: To continue the “Dirty Dancing” celebration, you can watch the ABC-TV remake of the movie on May 24.