Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
When 1998 rolled around and Footloose opened as a stage musical on Broadway, I shrugged it off as an obvious commercial ploy and declined to see it there, on tour, or in any of regional and community theater stagings that crossed my path. Though reviews for the Broadway production were on the soft side of mixed, it ran for 709 performances, buoyed by good will generated by its popular title and catchy title song. I finally succumbed to the lure of all that pop catchiness and made it to the current staging of Footloose at Artistry. I must report, I had a ball.
In part my resistance was broken by knowing that over the past few years Artistry has drawn joy out of even a weak property, such as last spring's Victor/Victoria, to say nothing of the jewel-like work they bestow upon gems like She Loves Me. Once again, Artistry did not disappoint. Director Ben McGovern, with very modest stage technology (compared, say, to the Ordway's gloriously abundant 42nd Street I had seen just the night before), keeps the show constantly moving, with seamless scene changes and a satisfying balance between focus on characters and emotions during the book scenes, tenderness during song scenes added to give the adult characters time to develop, and let-out-all-the stops gusto during the dance scenes at the heart of the show.
Footloose is, after all, about the undeniable joy of dancing, its youthful energy revitalizing to elders as well. The story is based on the actual town of Elmore City, Oklahoma, which had a ban on dancing since its founding in 1898 as an attempt to decrease the amount of heavy drinking and teenage sex. The ban held until 1980 when the town school board voted 3-2 in favor of a student-led campaign to hold a junior prom, and caught the attention of People Magazine.
Dean Pitchford, who wrote the screenplay and with Broadway director Walter Bobbie wrote the book for the musical, set the story in the fictional town of Bomont, Utah, and devised a more dramatic backstory for the dancing ban: instigated five years before by influential Reverend Shaw Moore in response to the death of four promising high school students killed in a car crash while returning from a dance. The fact that drinking was involved also played into it, drawing an association between raucous dancing and drinking. The creators also provide a fresh-faced protagonist, newly transplanted 17-year-old Ren McCormack from Chicago. Ren is an outgoing young man and avid fan of Chicago's dance clubs. He harbors a wound from his father's abandonment of the family 13 years before and has been forced to follow his cash-strapped mother to this middle-of-nowhere small town where they will live with his pious aunt and uncle.
In short order, Ren makes two friends: a hick cowboy named Willard and the wildcat daughter of Reverend Moore, Ariel. Ariel is in a hot and heavy relationship with Chuck, a school drop-out with a prison record who clearly expects her to tow his line. Needless to say, the dynamics between these characters are all re-arranged, and Ren becomes a high school hero by championing a reversal of the ban on dancing In order to hold Bomont's first school dance in five years.
Six songs in the stage musical were in the original movie, all with lyrics by Dean Pitchford, with Tom Snow and a cabal of other then-hot pop musicians composing the music. Those six are "Footloose," "Somebody's Eyes," "Holding Out for a Hero," "Almost Paradise," "I'm Free/Heaven Help Me," and my personal favorite, "Let's Hear It for the Boy." Single releases of each of those made the pop-music Billboard charts, and the movie's soundtrack album knocked Michael Jackson's "Thriller" from the #1 spot, where it remained for ten weeks. While these songs are all solidly composed pop tunes, each also works to support the narrative, as good musical theater songs do.
Additional songs were written by Pitchford and Snow for the stage production: "On Any Sunday," for the church choir, establishes the piety of the Bomont community; "I Can't Stand Still" demonstrates Ren's restless nature; "Learning to be Silent", sung in tandem by Ren's mother, Shaw's wife Vi, and Ariel, laments the expectation that, as females, they are not heard; "Heaven Help Me," is Shaw's plea for divine guidance in reaching his daughter; "Can You Find It in Your Heart" is Vi's appeal to Shaw to forgive Ariel; "Mama Says" is a delightful comic number shared by pals Willard and Ren; and "I Confess," is a powerful eleventh-hour soliloquy for Shaw, cut from the score in a 2005 revision but wisely restored to this production by the Artistry creative team. Like the songs carried over from the movie, all of these serve the purpose of advancing the story.
A good part of the energy in Artistry's Footloose comes from the cast, who give high voltage performances. A young actor named Ethan Davenport gives a remarkably polished turn as Ren, singing, dancing and acting with the confidence of a far more experienced performer. We'll keep an eye on him. Angela Steele, a winning Elle Woods in Artistry's Legally Blonde a year ago, gives a strong performance as Ariel, conveying the hurt and anger beneath her rebelliousness, delivering strong vocals and great moves in her dance scenes.
Paul Coate, an Artistry mainstay, is excellent as Reverend Shaw, his ferocious piety masking his pain, with a clear, powerful baritone that conveys his feelings through his songs, as well as his church sermons. Shana Eisenberg is touching as Shaw's wife Vi, struggling to balance the needs and emotions of her daughter and husband. Reese Britts is endearing as Ren's awkward wing man Willard, and Erin Nicole Farsté shines in each of her scenes as Ariel's friend Rusty, who has a crush on Willard. Jennifer Eckes is persuasive as Ren's mom, wanting to support her son while needing to fit in in their new home.
The strong dancing ensemble bring numbers like "Footloose," "Holding Out for a Hero," and "Let's Hear It for the Boy" to life with high energy that makes a case for Ren's love of dancing, all imaginatively choreographed by Heidi Spesard-Noble, though a line dance number during "Still Rockin'" feels a bit tired. Anita Ruth, Artistry's indefatigable music director, conducts an orchestra of eight who play the range of musical theater and pop music sounds with gusto. The physical productioncostumes, sets, lighting, soundare simple but effectively serve the production, with sound (Matt Bombich) and lighting (Karin Olson) especially enhancing scenes that involve an onrushing railroad train.
I was not wrong in supposing that Footloose is not anywhere near top drawer musical theater, but I had forgotten how much fun I had watching it in the drive-in, and underestimated how much fun it might be to see the energy, bouncy songs, and terrific dance numbers unspool live on stage. Leave it to Artistry to show me the error of my ways and deliver a great, toe-tapping show.
Footloose, August 18, 2019, at Artistry, Bloomington Center for the Arts, Schneider Theater, 1800 West Old Shakopee Road, Bloomington MN. Tickets: $43.00 -$46.00; Seniors (Age 62 and up): $38.00 - $41.00; Next Generation (age 30 and under): $17.00. For tickets call 952-563-8375 or go to artistrymn.org.
Book: Dean Pitchford and Walter Bobbie, based on the original screenplay by Dean Pitchford; Music: Tom Snow; Lyrics: Dean Pitchford; Additional Music: Eric Carmen, Sammy Hagar, Kenny Loggins and Jim Steinman; Director: Benjamin McGovern; Choreographer: Heidi Spesard-Noble Music Director and Conductor: Anita Ruth; Scenic Design: Rick Polenek; Costume Design: Ed Gleeman; Lighting Design: Karin Olson; Sound Design: Matt Bombich; Properties Design: Katie Phillips; Wig and Makeup Design: Paul Bigot; Stage Manager: Lee Johnson.
Cast: Carter Bannwarth (Travis), Reese Britts (Willard Hewitt), Paul R. Coate (Rev. Shaw Moore), Ethan Davenport (Ren McCormack), Jennifer Eckes (Ethel McCormack), Shana Eisenberg (Vi Moore),), Alyson Enderle (Wendy Jo), Erin Nicole Farsté (Rusty), Luke Hagar (Jeter/Cowboy Bob), Jordan Leggett (Garvin, u/s Ren McCormack), Austin Lewis (Chuck Cranston), Mary Palazzolo (Lulu Warnicker), France R. Roberts (Wes Warnicker), Dylan Rugh (Bickle/Cop), Emily Scinto (Urleen, u/s Ariel Moore), Angela Steele (Ariel Moore), Maggie Mae Sulentic (Eleanor Dunbar/Betty Blast), Brent Teclaw (Roger "Coach" Dunbar), Josh Wiesenberger (Lyle), Brittany Marie Wilson (Principal Harriet Clark).