Flashy ‘Footloose’ Is a Fun Frolic at The Muny

By Lynn Venhaus
Managing Editor
Eighties flash meets Millennial muscle in The Muny’s super-charged “Footloose,” a sprawling celebration of youthful energy and teen rituals.

It captivated the opening night crowd — the second-biggest one of the season (9,234, behind Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Cinderella” at 9,463) – enough to hum those earworms as they exited, if not exactly kicking up their heels in the summer’s extreme heat wave.

But the performers sure were in a groove, cutting loose and dancing with such exuberance that they could have powered a generator had the electricity gone out in those Amazon jungle conditions. What troopers! (Especially when a major thunderstorm prevented a dress rehearsal the night before).

It’s easy to see why people are drawn to the free-wheeling 1998 musical, for it is adapted from the 1984 blockbuster musical comedy-drama dance movie that made Kevin Bacon a star and features songs from the multi-platinum soundtrack that deposed Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” from the top Billboard spot.

The movie is about a group of rural small-town kids who finally force the adults to listen to them and change their minds about the ban on dance and music, led by the ultimate outsider. A surprise winter sensation that year, it held the record once for the highest-grossing February release of all-time and earned over $80 million in domestic box office (made for $8.2 million).

The solid gold juggernaut featured six songs that made Billboard’s Top 40 and were written by some of the top names of the day –Kenny Loggins, Jim Steinman, Tom Snow, Eric Carmen, Sammy Hagar and Michael Gore, in addition to creator Dean Pitchford.  

“Let’s Hear It for the Boy” by Deniece Williams, “Holding Out for a Hero” by Bonnie Tyler, the title song “Footloose” by Kenny Loggins (now in the National Recording Registry of the Library of Congress!) and the popular prom theme, the power ballad “Almost Paradise” by Ann Wilson of “Heart” and Mike Reno of “Loverboy,” were tailor-made for MTV, the cable channel introduced in 1981 that revolutionized music, and for blasting out of a boombox.

A Night on the Town with Willard, Ariel, Ren and Rusty. Photo by Phillip Hamer

Included in the stage version, they remain catchy pop tunes that defined an era, and the Muny production delivers them robustly. Andrew Graham’s crisp music direction made sure we heard all those signature ‘80s sounds – the synth-pop and dance-pop with unmistakable keyboard synthesizer and drum machine beats (terrific conducting and orchestrations). Previously, Graham was both the music director for the Muny debut of “Footloose” in 2010 and the national tour.

The best number, however, wasn’t one of the blockbuster tunes – it was singer-songwriter Karla Bonoff’s “Somebody’s Eyes,” sung superbly by Rusty (Khailah Johnson), Urleen (Maggie Kuntz ) and Wendy Jo (Katja Rivera Yanko), along with the company, which conveyed the hurtful gossipy situations often on display in tiny rural hamlets.

The high-spirited young cast, many making their Muny and professional debuts, brought a different dynamic to the massive stage – after all, the story is a teen rebel yell. What they lacked in experience they made up for in natural talent and all-in attitude.

Mason Reeves and Eli Mayer as Ren and Willard. Photo by Phillip Hamer

The elastic ensemble was as precise as a drill team in their fast-paced musical numbers, especially the prom and defiant diner scenes, but they also radiated joy and that sense of freedom that marks coming-of-age. Choreographer Jessica Hartman gave them vigorous workouts, and as Ren, Mason Reeves had the opportunity to shine in “I Can’t Stand Still,” “I’m Free” and “Dancing Is Not a Crime.”

Wait a minute! If the town has outlawed music and dancing, why is there a jukebox in the Burger Blast? Let’s face it – the script is a thick layer of cheese, a standard big city kid vs. closed minds in a small town but inside a typical ‘80s nighttime soap opera meets MTV music video framework. This was, after all, a time when music-loving rebels embraced smash-hit movies “Fame” and “Flashdance” that preceded it.

Gotta love another chance to wax nostalgic about the 1980s. Muny-goers must agree. They voted “Footloose” as their top choice in last year’s audience survey. (Well, some folks are familiar with the 2011 movie remake too).

And the Muny doesn’t disappoint with a delightful ‘80s flashback of big teased hair, perms, mullets and moussed coiffures. The wigs by Kelley Jordan are glorious. Besides his shiny track suit, Coach Dunbar (Patrick Blindauer) wears a permed mullet!

Costume designer Leon Dobkowski incorporated bright colors, geometric prints and jewel-toned outfits as part of the wardrobe, along with cowboy boots, jeans, overalls and aerobics wear. Did I see some puffy shirts? Willard wears an “I’m a Pepper” T-shirt. Touche on the vintage finds!

The story is loosely based on a real small town’s repeal of its no-dancing ban from 1898 so that the Class of ’81 juniors could host a prom – Elmore City, Okla., made national news in 1980. The town, at “the buckle of the Bible Belt,” between Oklahoma City and the Texas state line, got to shake it up after the school board president broke a 2-2 tie with the words: “Let ‘em dance.”

Dean Pitchford, Oscar-winning lyricist with composer Michael Gore for Best Original Song for “Fame,” heard about it, drove there, and created the script and wrote lyrics for the movie. He was nominated with Kenny Loggins for “Footloose” and with Tom Snow for “Let’s Hear It for the Boy” for Best Original Song at the 1985 Oscars (lost to Stevie Wonder, “I Just Called to Say I Love You”).

Pitchford also created the musical, nominated for four Tony awards, and wrote the Tony-nominated book with Walter Bobbie, in addition to lyrics. At least in the adaptation he did get rid of some of the movie’s dopiest elements.

Welcome to fast times at Bomont High. The stock characters are narrowly defined: Ariel, the disobedient wild child whose boyfriend is deplorable drug-dealing drop-out Chuck Cranston (what a cardboard cut-out), is the daughter of the town’s uptight pastor, Rev. Shaw Moore, who is trying to have some control after the loss of four youngsters, including his son, in an alcohol-and-drug-related car crash after a dance in another town. Then there’s our hero Ren, displaced from Chicago, whose dad abandoned the family. Gasp – he just wants to dance like at the clubs back home. But the Tawny Bridge Four shadow looms large.

(Wouldn’t a father prefer him over the obnoxious bad-to-the-bone boyfriend? But then we wouldn’t have a conflict, would we?) All the male adults misunderstand Ren and treat him terribly – Principal Clark (Jerry Vogel) and the coach, but also his uncle (Aaron Kaburick), thus blowing out of proportion his bad-boy persona.

OK, plot problems aside, for “Footloose” to be so well-liked, it must be more than its mega-hit score and pop-culture bellwether these days. This production ensured that the story resonated with its themes – parent-child relationships, fitting in, standing out, coping with loss, listening to the kids and being open to change.

Director Christian Borle, two-time Tony winner who played Willard on Broadway and in the national tour, emphasized that it was about “a father seeking a son and a son seeking a father,” according to the program notes from Mike Isaacson, executive producer and artistic director.

Let’s talk Borle for a minute. One of the big deals of Broadway during the past decade, with Tonys for playing Black Stache in “Peter and the Starcatcher” and William Shakespeare in “Something Rotten!,” he was nominated for and originated the role of Emmett in “Legally Blonde the Musical” on Broadway, produced by Fox Theatricals, as was “Thoroughly Modern Millie,” in which he played Jimmy (replacement during the run), thus the connection to producer Isaacson. Borle’s first directing gig was the well-received off-Broadway comedy “Popcorn Falls” last year, so this is his first musical, and what an intimidating stage for that! This show apparently matters to him, which says a lot, so he must have instilled an optimism on the Muny stage because he believes in the show.

Jeremy Kushnier and Heather Ayers, as Rev. Shaw and Vi Moore. Photo by Phillip Hamer.

Fortunately, Borle had some good actors who could harness the emotions needed for the father-son aspect. Jeremy Kushnier, who was the original Ren on Broadway 21 years ago, played Rev. Moore with appealing dimension. Balancing his family’s issues with what he perceives as the needs of his congregation came to a head in the reprises of “Heaven Help Me” and “Can You Find It in Your Heart?”

His confrontation with Ren, in which they honestly communicate, was heartfelt and the best acting scene of the night – Reeves, a senior at University of Michigan, showed a new side, not just as a sunny song-and-dance man.

In potentially thankless Mom roles – strong actresses Heather Ayers, as Vi Moore, and Darlesia Cearcy, as Ethel McCormack, were able to show their vocal prowess in the number, “Learning to Be Silent,” along with McKenzie Kurtz as Ariel, a recent graduate of University of Michigan. Ayers is quite impressive on “Can You Find It in Your Heart?”

Kurtz sang and danced with a burning and yearning, but the acting scenes mostly fell flat until later in the second act, when she can explain her behavior. For a protagonist, Ariel is not a very well-written character, hard to like at first – especially hanging out with the repulsive Chuck (Nowadays, “The Girl Gets Around” is rather offensive but must be considered in its time frame – and should have been then too).

To bridge the transition from Chuck to Ren, she and Reeves had little chemistry together. Was he the superman to sweep her off her feet, or even a streetwise Hercules? The pairing seemed tentative but perhaps grew into their roles as the performance week progressed).

Khailah Johnson and Eli Mayer at curtain call. Photo by Phillip Hamer

But other personalities did pop, especially standouts Eli Mayer as bumpkin Willard Hewitt and Khailah Johnson as cheerful Rusty, the show’s two best performers. I hope they return before or after graduating from The University of Cincinnati College Conservatory of Music and Carnegie Mellon respectively. Breaths of fresh air, their “Let’s Hear It for the Boy” was a real charmer, with Mayer endearing as he attempted to learn to dance and Johnson such a winning presence leading the upbeat number.

The technical elements were all in sync, with Greg Emetaz’s open-spaces video designs possibly the best integration yet of the season and enhanced the story– showcasing the dusty Oklahoma landscape, as well as the town’s landmarks and housing.

McKenzie Kurtz and Mason Reeves sing “Almost Paradise.” Photo by Phillip Hamer.

Particularly effective were the train bridge scenes – and kudos to set designer Tim Mackabee on his efficient and fluid backdrops. The Burger Blast, with its retro shades of aqua and pink, was a fun blast from the past.

In a nod to an iconic dance move in the movie’s prom scene, Hartman inserted it here in the finale, and it’s every bit as fun to watch as it is to wait for it. Another nice touch was the individual curtain calls where each principal character comes out busting a move.

If you were lucky to see the show Friday, the Stanley Cup made its Muny debut in quite an entrance at intermission, and the audience responded with a standing ovation to the tune of ‘Gloria.” Let’s hear it for St. Louis! Sweet nod to the Blue Note.

“Footloose” may have some clunky – and outdated — book issues, but as a theatrical endeavor, the Muny kicked up its infectious spirit a notch so that, as the title song says, “we lose our blues” – and that’s all right.

“Footloose” finale. Photo by Phillip Hamer.

The Muny presents “Footloose” nightly from July 18 to 24 at 8:15 p.m. on the outdoor stage at Forest Park. For more information or tickets, visit www.muny.org.

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