DIRTY DANCING returns to Philadelphia this month with several new new cast leads, including Jennifer Mealani Jones, who will play the role of Penny Johnson. Jones talked with Phindie about how she made the transition from understudy to lead, and her ties to the city.
[Merriam Theater] May 16-21, 2017; kimmelcenter.org
Debra Danese:You are playing the part of Penny Johnson. How did you prepare for such an iconic role?
Jennifer Mealani Jones: We had two weeks of rehearsal before this tour kicked off in September, but I learned my Penny track last year when I joined the tour as an ensemble dancer. I was originally an understudy for Penny and Vivian. Going from an understudy to taking over Penny as the principle track was wild for me. I never had to act in front of an audience, let alone speak, so it was a lot of work. I had so much help and support from the cast.
DD:With the movie being so recognizable, how do you stay true to it while still making the role of Penny your own?
JMJ: We try to keep it fresh on stage. We have such a talented, hard working group in this cast so it’s easy to feed off of that energy and make discoveries every show. As far as making Penny my own, I bring my own shoes. I try to bring a little bit of grit to her character while staying pulled up in my bombshell blonde wig.
DD:As a dancer, which production number do you most enjoy performing in? Why?
JMJ: I love “Time of My Life!” From our “walk down” right before Johnny and Baby do the lift to all of the dancing that comes after, the number is so full of joy! I actually have the time of my life every night with my beautiful partner, Mark Mackillop. We have so much fun.
DD:What do you have common with your character?
JMJ: Penny is a tough girl on the outside but a delicate flower on the inside. I like to think I can pull from both personality traits in real life. Philly did make me a bit of a tough girl!
DD:What’s your favorite line or moment in the show?
JMJ: The lift! Honestly, it gives me chills every time but, besides the lift, I love doing the Merengue in the beginning. I have fun moments with each of the cast members. As far as my favorite line? When our Lisa, Alyssa Brizzi, comes out and yells “Oh Gosh” as she sees one of the guests coming in with all of her shoes, it actually makes me cry laughing every show.
DD:You have some connections to Philadelphia. Can you tell us you about them?
JMJ: I went to college in Philly. I graduated from the University of the Arts in 2013 with a BFA in Jazz Dance. During that time, I cheered for the 76ers; had every part time job around the city that you could imagine; performed in the Fringe with Gunnar Montana; danced with the Philadelphia Orchestra in a beautiful show choreographed by Tommie Waheed-Evans; and spent most of my free time either at the Drake Theatre or the Merriam Theatre. When I graduated, I joined Philadanco. Some of my most amazing memories are in Philly. I kicked off my adulthood and professional career in Philly.
DD:What are you are looking forward to doing or revisiting when back in Philadelphia?
JMJ: I can’t wait to perform at the Merriam Theater again. I am also excited to see how much has changed in Philly since I lived there. Hopefully, all my favorite bars and restaurants are still around. First stop? Blood Orange Margaritas at El Vez!