When he was 12, Doug Carpenter attended his first-ever professional show at the National Theatre, watching awestruck over the powerful music and story of Rent. Now, almost two decades later, the actor is making his National debut in the touring production of Dirty Dancing – The Classic Story On Stage.
“Everyone who was interested in theater was listening to Rent on repeat. A buddy and I saw it was coming to National, and begged his mom to take us,” Carpenter says. “Theater was what defined me during that time.”
In his junior year of high school, Carpenter met with a voice teacher who persuaded him to pursue opera as a career. He went on to study classical music at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and obtained a master’s degree in music from UCLA.
“I thought I was going to be an opera singer for a long time, even though I did musicals all the way through high school, because my teacher guided me in an opera direction in college,” he says. “After UCLA, I sort of rediscovered musical theater and have been doing that predominantly since then.”
He doesn’t consider himself much of a dancer. “I never thought my first big tour would be a dance musical because all I ever do are the big leading man singing roles like Curly in Oklahoma, Tony in West Side Story and Chris in Miss Saigon,” he says. “I didn’t even dance in my audition.”
Thankfully, he says, he has very little dancing to do in the production, and he would just as well leave that for the dance pros who “are simply amazing on stage.”
Auditioning for Dirty Dancing wasn’t really in his plans, but he thought his girlfriend was going to book a part, and he wanted to be with her, so he tried out on a whim.
Of course, he was very familiar with the movie on which the musical is based and he considers himself a big fan of the Patrick Swayze/Jennifer Grey movie. “When it first came out, I was a little young to see it, but it was one of those staple movies you would see on the bus on those choir tours you would take in high school (as was Newsies).” he says. “It’s a classic. I loved it. It was one of those films that you could just watch over and over and appreciate all the great music and dancing.”
In Dirty Dancing, Carpenter plays Billy, aka “the guy with the watermelon,” who is the nice-guy cousin of Johnny Castle (Samuel Pergande). Jillian Mueller co-stars as Frances “Baby” Houseman.
“I’m sort of the goofball but in the end I do a lot of the heavy lifting on the singing,” he says. “I sing ‘In the Still of the Night’ and ‘Time of My Life.’ The real work of this role is the singing at the end.”
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“This is pure fun for people who love the movie. It’s almost exactly the movie on stage, but just with a little more singing and dancing,” Carpenter says. “So many people have such a connection with the movie, this is a chance for them all to be in the same room and share in it together. There’s something special about that. It’s kind of like those who go and see Rocky Horror together.”
A big part of its appeal, Carpenter says, is the touching story written by Eleanor Bergstein, the screenwriter of the film and book writer for the musical.
“It touches on racial rights and one girl’s discovering herself and the way it intertwines is beautiful,” he says. “I think the play itself stands up and is better than a lot of musicals out right now as far as the book goes. Plus, its got some really phenomenal blow-your-mind dancing in the show.”
With tech just about over and previews set to begin next week, Aug. 26, at the National Theatre in preparation for its Sept. 2 opening night, Carpenter is looking forward to his first tour experience.
“I’m excited to be on tour because I’ve never done it before,” he says. “I’m really interested to see what the audiences’ reactions are going to be. It’s nice to do something that so many people know and love. I don’t know if there is any greater soundtrack that Dirty Dancing, it’s one of the all-time greats.”