Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
In 1998, Footloose re-emerged as a stage musical on Broadway. Pitchford collaborated on the show's book with Walter Bobbie, who also directed. They retained seven songs from the film, and Pitchford and Tom Snow wrote seven more to fill out the musical's score. The result was a more modest success than the movie, running a couple months shy of two years, but with tepid reviews it never rose anywhere near "must see" status. And yet ... all those catchy tunes, those gyrating dancers, that joy-affirming outcome of a community setting aside collective grief to reconnect with the spirit of its youth ... surely, that adds up to a massive good time, right?
At Chanhassen Dinner Theatres, where a can't-miss new production of Footloose is breaking loose on its stage, the answer is a big "right!" The show, staged by director Michael Brindisi, delivers a heaping helping of entertainment, peppered with terrific choreography by Renee Guittar and a troupe of fabulous dancers, supercharged performances by its two young leads, and a pick-up truckload of heart, all on top of those can't-stop-humming-'em songs. It's a big winner.
Footloose is based–very loosely–on the actual town of Elmore City, Oklahoma, where dancing had been banned since 1898 as a pre-prohibition attempt to reduce heavy drinking and teen-age sex. The ban held until 1980 when the town's school board voted 3-2 in favor of a student-led campaign to hold a junior prom, catching the attention of People Magazine.
Pitchford picked up on that story, inventing a stuck-in-the-middle-of nowhere town called Bomont. The fictional Bomont had passed such a ban, pressed by the heavy hand of influential Reverend Shaw Moore, after four of the town's most promising teenagers were killed in a car accident while driving back from a dance. Hints that drinking was involved in the accident led to the conclusion that all that dancing led those "good kids" to succumb to the temptation of alcohol, and who knows what else?
Enter 17-year-old Chicago transplant Ren McCormack (the Kevin Bacon role) and his cash-strapped mother Ethel, come to live with Ren's pious aunt and uncle after his father abandoned his wife and son. Ren is angry about his dad and about leaving Chicago, where life could be tough but he could at least let loose in the dance clubs at the end of the week. Not in Bomont. On top of that, Bomont is not used to strangers showing up, and everyone–the other kids and the adults alike–gives Ren a hard time. The adults assume that a kid from the big bad city has got to be trouble, and the kids assume that this city boy needs to be taken down a few notches. Then Ren meets Reverend Moore's foxy, rebellious daughter Ariel and the die is cast for change to boogie over Bomont's horizon.
Yes, the story is a bit syrupy. Memory tells me it felt edgier in the mid 1980s, but with all that has transpired in almost four decades since then, it feels almost quaint. However, lubricated by the infectious songs, Ren's determination, and Ariel's righteous anger at her father's misguided efforts to "protect" her, it still plays really well. The show's humor comes courtesy of Ren's acerbic point of view, slow-on-the-uptake Willard who befriends Ren, and Ariel's friend Rusty who harbors a long simmering crush on Willard. The show's heart originates mainly from Ren, but radiates out to those who he affects with his relentless drive to bring joy back to Bomont.
Brindisi has drawn aces for every one of his leads. At first glance, when Alan Bach strode out as Ren I thought he looked at least ten years too old to play seventeen, but in less than ten minutes he had me hooked, using every one of his talents–persuasive acting, spot-on timing, a great voice, and jaw-dropping dancing–to sell the goods. Maya Richardson, as Ariel, had me on board the minute she showed up. Her performance renders the necessary blend of rebel, dreamer, and wounded child that is Ariel, and she brings terrific vocals and hot dancing to the stage as well. When Bach and Richardson join voices on the love song "Almost Paradise," they seem not to be acting, but to be genuinely falling in love.
Michael Gruber sells the goods as the starch-backed minister whose firm grip on the town keeps residents bound to his moralizing vehemence, better at having influence over his peers than over his daughter. Unfortunately, a powerful song called "I Confess," written by Pitchford and Snow for the stage musical as an eleven o'clock number to reveal Reverend Shaw's crisis of confidence in his beliefs, was cut from the show in 2005. That number let the audience into Shaw's troubled mind and made his final acts feel believable. Without it, the outcome seems a bit unfounded. Gruber does the best he can, given that limitation, to make Shaw's resolution of the conflict feel honest.
Lynnea Doublette is winning as Shaw's wife Vi, who quietly defends her daughter and challenges the wisdom of her husband's stone-faced intransigence. Ann Michel's role as Ren's mother Ethel is small for the actor who typically excels in leads, but she brings the right blend of resignation to the downturn her life has taken and the essential drive to defend her son. Matthew Hall is endearing as Willard, and a good match for Shinah Hey, who aptly mines the sass and comic elements of Rusty's character. Ben Bakken captures just the right notes as Ariel's badass boyfriend Chuck, and in a role so small it amounts to a cameo, Kirsten Rodau is a hoot on roller skates as Betty Blast, proprietor of the Burger Blast drive-in. The entire cast and ensemble give their all to the dance numbers generously placed throughout the show.
The proficient Andy Kust once again wields the baton as Chanhassen's music director, and leads the eight-piece band to solid renditions of the score, rock and rolling for the most part, but handling the tender musical moments with aplomb as well. Costume (Rich Hamson), set (Nayna Ramey, lighting (Sue Ellen Berger), and sound (Russ Haynes) design are all top notch. We transition from the Chicago opening to the far reaches of rural Bomont by way of backdrops beautifully rendered in pastel shades, while the gym uniforms at Bomont High School and the outfits worn by Betty Blast and her employees bring bold bursts of color to the fore.
One moment in the show that has not aged well comes about halfway through Act I. Vi has been shut down by her husband as she tries to defend their daughter Ariel, whom he had also silenced. Earlier we had seen Ethel blasted by her brother (or brother-in-law, a detail never made clear) for trying to defend Ren. The three female characters sing "Learning to Be Silent," a good song that bemoans a woman's need to silently tolerate a man's need to call the shots. In 1998, this surely was viewed as an apt criticism of the men in question. In 2022, in the wake of #MeToo and its aftermath, even this criticism feels tame, its sentiments uncomfortably passive. It makes one glad to have left the 1980s behind.
So there you have it. Footloose will not likely make us long for that long-past decade, but it can make us feel an appreciation for the bouncy good energy (which, from today's vantage point, looks like innocence) that produced entertainments like Footloose. Without having to go back to then, we can head to Chanhassen and have ourselves a ball, shimmying our hips at our seats along with the upbeat notes that call out "Everybody cut, everybody cut, (everybody) everybody cut footloose!"
Footloose runs through, September 24, 2022, at the Chanhassen Dinner Theatre, 501 West 78th Street, Chanhassen MN. Tickets including dinner and show: $71.00- $96.00. Show-only tickets, if available, at box office ten days before performance date: $53.00 - $78.00. Check website for senior and student discounts. For tickets and information, please call 952-934-1525, toll-free 1-800-362-3515, or visit www.chanhassendt.com
Book: Dean Pitchford and Walter Bobbie, based on the original screenplay by Dean Pitchford; Music: Tom Snow; Lyrics: Dean Pitchford; Additional Lyrics: Eric Carmen, Sammy Hagar, Kenny Loggins and Jim Steinman; Meredith Wilson and Franklin Lacy; Director: Michael Brindisi; Choreographer: Renee Guittar; Music Director: Andy Kust; Set Design: Nayna Ramey; Costume Design: Rich Hamson; Lighting Design: Sue Ellen Berger; Sound Design: Russ Haynes; Hair Design: Paul Toni; Intimacy Director: Doug Scholz-Carlson; Technical Director: Logan Jambik; Production Stage Manager: Thomas Schumacher; Assistant Stage Manager: John Trow; Assistant Choreographer: Rush Benson.
Cast: Alan Bach (Ren McCormack), Ben Bakken (Chuck Cranston), Rush Benson (Travis), Tommy Benson (ensemble), Lynnea Doublette (Vi Moore), Mitchell Douglas (Bickle), Michael Gruber (Rev. Shaw Moore), Matthew Hall (Willard Hewitt), Shad Hanley (Coach Dunbar), Shinah Hey (Rusty), Tyson Insixiengmai (Jeter), Mark King (Principal Harry Clark), Kayli Lucas (Urleen), Abby Magalee (ensemble), Caleb Michael (ensemble), Ann Michels (Ethel McCormick), Andrea Mislan (ensemble), Tinia Moulder (Lulu Warnicker), Daysha Ramsey (ensemble), Maya Richardson (Ariel Moore), Kirstin Rodau (Betty Blast), Laura Rudolph (ensemble), Dylan Rugh (Lyle), Emily Scinto (ensemble), Maureen Sherman-Mendez (Wendy Jo), Janet Hayes Trow (ensemble), John Trow (Cop/ensemble), Tony Vierling (Cowboy Bob), Evan Tyler Wilson (Garvin), John-Michael Zuerlein (Wes Warnicker).