Nov. 11 2015 02:34 PM

Mark Elliot Wilson brings diverse experience to Broadway role

THURSDAY, Nov. 12 — “Dirty Dancing: The Classic Story on Stage” sashayed onto the Wharton Center stage Tuesday, much to the joy of ‘80s nostalgia junkies.

Mark Elliot Wilson
Courtesy photo

In this Broadway adaptation of the popular 1980s film, rich kid Baby and falls in love with blue collar dance instructor Johnny — all set to the tunes of one of the best-selling soundtrack albums of all time.

Mark Elliot Wilson plays the role of Baby’s father, Dr. Jake Houseman, in this touring production. An accomplished television and film actor, Wilson’s acting credits include several episodes in the “Law & Order” franchise and the Oliver Stone film “World Trade Center.” City Pulse caught up with Wilson in between performances.

“Dirty Dancing” is such a well known film. How do you acknowledge the performance of Jerry Orbach, who originated the role of Dr. Jake Houseman, while still bringing something of your own to the role?

I’ve had it happen to me a couple of times. I played Kowalski in “A Streetcar Named Desire.” There’s no way to replicate what Brando did, so you have to really find it within yourself and make it your own and try to forget about the history of it.

Jerry Orbach played Detective Briscoe in “Law & Order,” I worked with him several times. Every episode of “Law & Order” that I did, I had scenes with him. I just loved the guy so much. I didn’t know Brando, I never worked with him, but with Jerry — I want to make it my own but also pay tribute to him and how great he was and what a great guy he was. So it’s not copying him, it’s sort of cherry-picking the qualities I found most appealing in his performance and trying to incorporate those into my interpretation.

What is it about “Dirty Dancing” that gives it such enduring popularity?

It’s like “Romeo and Juliet” — it’s an opposite-side-of-the-tracks type of thing. These kids are from different worlds. It resonates on so many levels. You have a love story, and you have forbidden fruit. It just resonates, and it has since Shakespeare’s time. Whether it’s “Romeo and Juliet” or “West Side Story” or “Dirty Dancing,” that kind of love story is never going to go out of style. It has these built-in psychological and emotional components.

You’ve done a lot of TV and film work. Do you have to change your approach to acting for a Broadway musical?

If you start off in theater, and then you go into film and TV, it can help you learn to trust and just be still and contained and not work as hard as you think you need to work. Obviously the energy level for dancing and singing and all that has its own prerequisites, but you just need to trust that the filmist and that the audience will see what you’re thinking, you don’t have to make a big show about it.

If you start out in film, it’s hard to get to the stage and bring the requirements that are necessary to fill a space and inhabit a role in a bigger way. But if you’ve been on stage and then you go to film and then go back to the stage, film teaches you a quality of stillness. Our writer, Eleanor (Bergstein, who also wrote the movie script), has embraced a lot of that stillness. She’s very interested in blending that film quality with the stage quality, which I really appreciate. I think it makes it more real.

For an actor, being on stage every night has the joy of that connection with the audience, the immediate gratification of that circuit of energy that’s going around the theater, from the stage to the audience and back to the stage again.

But the good thing about film is that if you get it right — or you get it to the point you’re satisfied and the director of photography is satisfied — then you move on. You have this perfect little moment. Although it may take a year or two before anyone sees it, and nobody’s really able to embrace it while you’re doing it. So by the time it comes out, you barely remember what that moment was until you see it again and see how it’s assembled with music and editing and all that jazz.

These touring Broadway productions often do seven or eight shows a week and are in a different city almost every week. How do you prepare for a touring production like this?

It’s a carnival. The machine is always moving. You just have to get into your own rhythm and find out what that is. We have great dancers and singers and people who can do all of it, and everybody has to figure out how much rest they need and the kind of warm-up they need. You have to really concentrate on micromanaging your own efforts and making sure you stay healthy and rested, because the audience deserves your best effort every night. You have to be disciplined and take care of yourself. It’s really like being a monk or an Olympic athlete, you have to stay focused on what this is, especially in a one-week gig. You can’t be mucking around and have your show compromised. It’s a very disciplined and very ordered existence.

I think it was Flaubert who said that you have to be structured and ordered in your personal life so you can be violent and free in your art. That’s really what it is. Everybody busts out occasionally, but you really have to keep everything tight and disciplined. If you start goofing around, it’s easy to get sick, it’s easy to get run down. It’s hard.

Do you have a favorite moment in the show that you look forward to each night?

Soup-to-nuts, it’s this really fun adventure and ride. If I pinpointed one section, I would think, “Oh no, there’s another section.” I like to think of it as a whole and not as little isolated bits that get patched together. I love it all.

It’s my first time doing anything like this. I’ve done a lot of classical work, Shakespeare and things, and a lot of time the audience feels like they’re taking a mouthful of medicine. They think it’s good for them. I don’t know how much they truly enjoyed it.

So this show is such a wonderful experience, to share this happiness with the audience. I can’t tell you how much I love to be a part of this joyful experience. I just love the whole thing. From when that drum starts in the beginning until we do our curtain call, it’s so great.

“Dirty Dancing”

7:30 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 12; 8 p.m. Friday, Nov. 13; 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 14; 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 15. Tickets start at $38. Wharton Center, 750 E. Shaw Lane, East Lansing. (517) 432- 2000,