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Phoenix
Regional Reviews by Gil Benbrook

Footloose
Hale Centre Theatre

Also see Gil's review of The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs


The Cast
It's hard to believe that it has been thirty years since the movie Footloose was such a huge hit at the box office. The soundtrack, with such songs as "I Need a Hero," "Let's Hear It for the Boy," "I'm Free" and the title song, was also a smash, holding the #1 spot on the US Billboard 200 chart for over two months. While the film wasn't an actual musical, since none of the characters sang any of the songs, in 1998 the movie was adapted into a Broadway musical featuring many of the songs from the film along with additional ones written by Tom Snow and Dean Pitchford, both of whom had written songs for the movie soundtrack. A fun, upbeat coming of age story with a big message about the need to fit in and the desire to change people's lives for the better, Footloose was the perfect feel good summer movie, and the musical is equally as fun, filled with lots of dancing and buoyant, infectious songs. With a cast of young gifted actors and singers, the Hale Centre production that just opened is a skillfully sung and danced show that offers a fun and joyous night out.

High school student Ren McCormack and his mother have just moved to the small town of Bomont from Chicago after Ren's father deserts them. They've moved to Bomont to live with Ren's aunt and uncle, and Ren quickly realizes that his Chicago style and way of doing things clashes with the small town's rules, specifically one enforced by the local minister Reverend Moore that bans dancing and rock music due to their negative influences on the children in town. Of course, when Ren falls for the minister's daughter Ariel it only makes matters worse, especially since Ren's outgoing personality is seen as a negative influence. Ren sets out to discover the reasons behind the ban on dancing as well as a way to bridge the gap between himself and the ultra-conservative Moore.

The film included some riveting action sequences, which have obviously been cut for the musical since it's virtually impossible to represent something like a car race on stage. But book writers Dean Pitchford and Walter Bobbie crafted a script that follows the basic plot points of the film, with the lyrics from the film soundtrack songs fitting naturally in the characters' voices. And while some of the added songs aren't as good as the hit tunes from the film soundtrack, they serve the purpose of providing insight into the characters and moving the story along. It's not a perfect musical, but with interesting characters, the familiar songs from the film, and plenty of non-stop dancing, it is a crowd pleaser.

Footloose is a show that requires a lot of dancing and director/choreographer Cambrian James has assembled a terrific cast that more than manages their way around the varied and exuberant steps he has created for the show. Connor Wince easily makes Ren the likeable outcast who is just trying to fit in, and his exuberance is displayed through exceptional and impressive dance moves, including an abundance of acrobatic flips. He has a pleasant signing voice as well as an assured delivery of his dialogue which contribute to a nice interpretation of the role.

As Ariel, the minister's daughter who falls for Ren, Jacqueline Brecker gets across that Ariel is smart and funny and knows exactly what to do in order to get what she wants. She brings a nice energy to her performance as well as a voice that solidly negotiates the pop/rock score. While she and Wince come across more as good friends who might be interested in each other, instead of a couple in a relationship with sultry, burning desire at its core, they do have one passionate kiss that adds a bit of heat to their G-rated romance.

Brandon Zale is appropriately righteous and stern as Reverend Moore, but instills the part with an element of compassion and understanding that I've not seen in previous productions. He makes Moore sympathetic and not an out and out villain, which works well. He also has a rich and powerful singing voice that he uses very effectively for Moore's songs. Brandi Bigley and Jennifer Whiting deliver touching and heartfelt performances as the moms of Ariel and Ren, respectively. They don't have a lot to do in the show, but Pitchford and Bobbie have given them both rich, clear and succinct dialogue that, when combined with Bigley and Whiting's genuine performances, manages to do a lot with a little.

Kate E. Cook and Danny Karapetian are fantastic as Rusty and Willard, Ariel and Ren's friends who have a budding romance of their own. Cook has one of the strongest, clearest voices in the non-professional Phoenix Theatre scene, managing to make an excellent impression in every role she performs, and she more than succeeds as the fast talking Rusty. Her delivery of "Somebody's Eyes" is superb. Karapetian is just as good as the slow-witted but endearing and charming Willard. He provides a skilled delivery of Willard's humorous lines and excels in his solo comical song "Mama Says."

The hard-working ensemble has a lot to do, as they are used in just about every song, but I want to single out Matthew R. Harris who plays three small parts so skillfully that he makes them all different individuals, with different voices and mannerisms. I can't imagine anyone in the audience would know it was the same actor if they didn't look at the program.

James' staging is fantastic and his dance steps are continually changing from song to song. He proficiently fills the entire stage, the staircases, platforms and entry ways with his cast during "Somebody's Eyes," which ties in perfectly with the song's lyrics about how, no matter where you go, "somebody's eyes are watching." For the dream sequence delivery of "I Need a Hero," he expertly has his ensemble maneuver four large tables into a rotating platform for Brecker, Cook and their friends to perform upon, and then just as quickly move them back as if the dream never happened. I also like his honky tonk staging of the country inspired "Let's Hear It For the Boy" that Cook knocks out of the park while the ensemble delivers some nice line dancing steps. James' only misstep is a slightly muddy and cluttered opening sequence for the title song that has his cast performing some awkward movements. Fortunately, that and the slightly non-passionate relationship between Wince and Brecker are the only very small negatives in the whole production.

Creative elements, as usual with a Hale show, are excellent. Set designers Adam DeVaney and Brian Daily use an abundance of small moveable set pieces to whisk us from one location to the next, Mary Atkinson's costumes are colorful, character appropriate and abundant, and Jeff A. Davis' lighting design provides appropriately bright sequences for the daytime scenes and plenty of shadows and darkness for the evening ones. He also uses a lot of effective "rock star" style lighting for the upbeat songs. While there were a few small sound glitches, I have to believe they were just opening night kinks still needing to be worked out.

Footloose is a fun-filled show perfect for the hot summer months. It's fun, fast and brimming with singing and dancing. The Hale Centre Theatre production has excellent choreography and a hard-working cast that manages to instill this simple story with a shot of charm and sincerity on top of a wealth of nonstop dancing.

The Hale Centre Theatre production of Footloose runs through August 23rd, 2014, with performances at 50 W. Page Avenue in Gilbert. Tickets can be ordered at www.haletheatrearizona.com or by calling (480) 497-1181

Music by Tom Snow
Lyrics by Dean Pitchford
Additional music by Eric Carmen, Sammy Hagar, Kenny Loggins and Jim Steinman
Book by Walter Bobbie and Dean Pitchford
Director / Choreographer: Cambrian James
Music Director: Mickey Bryce
Set Designer: Adam DeVaney, Brian Daily
Costume Designer: Mary Atkinson
Lighting Designer: Jeff A. Davis
Wigs/Makeup: Cambrian James
Stage Manager: Justin Peterson

Cast:
Ren: Conner Wince
Ariel: Jacqueline Brecker
Rev. Shaw: Brandon Zale
Rusty: Kate E. Cook
Willard: Danny Karapetian
Vi: Brandi Bigley
Ethel: Jennifer Whiting
Urleen: Sarah Bartley
Wendy Jo: Audrey Sullivan
Chuck: Matt Drui
Coach Dunbar: Julian-Sebastian Peņa
Wes/Principal/Cop: Matt Harris
Aunt Lulu/Irene/Betty Blast: Tina Khalil
Garvin: Nate Dutson
Lyle: Nick Fernandez
Travis: Vinny Chavez
Bickle: Bransen Gates
Jeter: Lee Pitts
Mary Lou: Marlena Jeffry
Mary Ann: Harley Barton
Mary Lynn: Grace Kirkpatrick
Eleanor Dunbar: Heidi Liz Johnson


Photo: Nick Woodward/Hale Centre Theatre

--Gil Benbrook


Also see the Current Theatre Season Calendar for Phoenix



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