Christopher Tierney as Johnny and Gillian Abbott as Baby in the North American tour of Dirty Dancing. Photo by Matthew Murphy.
Christopher Tierney as Johnny and Gillian Abbott as Baby in the North American tour of Dirty Dancing. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

Calgary native Gillian Abbott is having the time of her life playing Frances “Baby” Houseman in the touring production of Dirty Dancing: The Classic Story on Stage, set to play Vancouver’s Queen Elizabeth Theatre in January.

“We just performed in Calgary last week,” says Abbott by phone from Edmonton. “It was such a wonderful experience being back home and performing for so many of my family, friends and mentors.”

Calling opening night Calgary an “incredibly memorable experience”, Abbott says that she felt more nervous performing before her hometown crowd than she has since joining the tour.

“There was way more pressure performing in Calgary because I knew so many people that came to each show,” she says. “It actually meant more to me than even playing on Broadway because these are the people that I owe all this to, and I couldn’t be where I am today without them.”

While Abbott says she owes much of her success to those that supported her as she grew up, she also comes with an impressive pedigree for such a young actor.

“My first show was with Cirque du Soleil in Las Vegas as part of The Beatles Love,” she says. “I actually auditioned in Vancouver just for the experience, but they ended up offering me a role.”

Not yet out of high school at the time, Abbott found herself in Sin City with her sister acting as guardian until she turned eighteen. She even wrote her Alberta high school finals while performing to the music of the Fab Four.

“I turned down a second year with the show after I was accepted into Julliard,” she continues. “I was really very fortunate to have been accepted into Julliard, which helped to justify what I was doing.”

From Julliard, Abbott inevitably found herself on the audition circuit, including a couple of auditions for Dirty Dancing. Not landing the role her first two times out, it would be almost a year later that she would finally get the call.

“I was doing Boardwalk Empire at the time, and I remember still being dressed in my corset when I got a call between takes telling me they were still interested. It was a very stretched out process,” she laughs.

Before joining the cast in July of 2014, Abbott found herself working one-on-one with Dirty Dancing’s writer Eleanor Bergstein, who had also penned the screenplay for the film. It was during those meetings that she was able to shake off any potential comparisons to Jennifer Grey’s performance in the movie.

“We had these amazing conversations about the role in her Central Park home,” she says. “Eleanor was gracious about allowing me to make the role my own, and in building the character of Baby from the inside out, rather than trying to put anything of Jennifer Grey on me.”

Calgary-born actor Gillian Abbott is having the time of her life playing Baby in the stage adaptation of Dirty Dancing
Calgary-born actor Gillian Abbott is having the time of her life playing Baby in the stage adaptation of Dirty Dancing

Of course, one only has to look at photos of Abbott in character (above) to realize that while she may have been able to find her own inner Baby, the show makes no excuses for what it is.

“It is a really good wig, and it would make anyone look like Baby from a distance,” she says with another laugh. “This is definitely a celebration of the film, and people want to see so much of what they love about the movie.”

A big part of honouring the film is ensured by closely following its original storyline. Set in a sleepy resort in the Catskills during the summer of 1963, Dirty Dancing tells the story of Baby who finds herself enlisted as the new partner for the resort’s dance instructor, Johnny. The two gradually fall in love, and as the season comes to a close the duo end up performing a final dance together in a scene that includes one of cinema’s most iconic moments.

“All of your favourite things about the movie are here, including the lift,” says Abbott.

Dirty Dancing: The Classic Story On Stage plays the Queen Elizabeth Theatre January 12-17. Visit http://vancouver.broadway.com for tickets and information.