First and foremost Footloose showcases the popular music of the 1980’s and the musical segments of this production rock to the max. The production numbers are the strongest element of the show, as much for the choreography of Matt Cole as the music. The energy and entertainment value of the music saves Footloose from drowning in outdated overly mawkish mediocrity.
The soundtrack of a generation!
Footloose is currently playing at the Peacock Theatre as part of a UK tour that started in July this year. The 1984 film of the same name starring Kevin Bacon in the lead role of troubled teenager Ren was a huge hit. It was first adapted for the stage in 1998, and Footloose – the musical – was successful both on Broadway and in the West End.
First and foremost Footloose showcases the popular music of the 1980’s and the musical segments of this production rock to the max. It is in these moments, when production values in direction, choreography, music, lighting and sound design all coalesce into one joyous whole, with the performers reveling in the glow, that the piece soars.
The problem with this show lies in the spaces between the music and the book, at its core, a sad and jaded element. There are times when the audience could think they had wondered into an evangelical event. The strong religious moments are discomforting and unnecessary.
Beyond this, the narrative is interesting. Ren moves with his mother from big town Chicago to small town Bomont. His father has left them and they seek new horizons. Ren is conflicted and takes the torment with him. He has trouble fitting into the constricted life of a small community and rails most against a local law forbidding dance in the town. Ren falls for Ariel, the daughter of Reverend Shaw, who is himself repressing the grief of losing his son in a car accident.
Ren campaigns to have the anti-dancing law repealed and fails until his mother encourages him to speak from the heart. It is the following scene between Ren and Rev Shaw that produces the most authentic piece of acting in this production and is genuinely moving. Both men face their pain, the law is repealed and everyone dances their way into a brighter future.
The stock characters are all present and correct: romantic leads, comic side-kicks and ubiquitous baddies. Unfortunately, there is also the young girl seen to be immoral on the basis of her beauty. She has a friend who is a shocking size 12 with dialogue about her unhealthy eating habits for everyone to laugh at. The craft of musical theatre has moved on and left this dross behind.
The majority of the characterizations are pure old-fashioned musical theatre with a dash of pantomime added for colour. This treatment is dictated partly by genre, but also by direction. However the performances are entertaining and the musical numbers almost compensate when the drama is lacking.
The cast are all multi-talented and splendid. They are actor musicians, a relatively modern term used to describe a performer in a musical who plays one or more instruments while acting, singing and dancing. There is no band in the background, just the actors playing onstage. This practice is becoming more common and can be highly successful. It can also be intrusive to the flow of the narrative and less musical in its realization.
Last night, the music provided by the cast was outstanding. Virtuosic keyboard skills come from a number of players but Connor Going, who also played Chuck, is particularly fine at the piano. The only instrument not covered by the cast is percussion with musical director David Keech keeping tight control from the drum set. Learning to Be Silent, featuring the mothers and Ariel in an acoustic moment, is a musical highlight as was the acoustic guitar accompaniment in the duet Almost Paradise.
The lead role of Ren is played by Joshua Dowen who is a powerful singer, strong dancer and an actor who proves himself capable of handling serious moments. His love interest, Ariel, is played by Hannah Price. Almost Paradise is their duet and the pair have some well played scenes together.
The comic side-kick is played by heart throb Gareth Gates. The introduction of Willard is reminiscent of the Rain Man but Gates fishes for laughs too much and his character lacks warmth and depth. However the musical number featuring Gates and the boys in the second act, Mama Says (You Can’t Back Down), is pure joy.
Ariel’s parents, the Reverend Shaw and his wife Vi, are played by Reuven Gershon and Maureen Nolan. The family scenes are a counterpoint to the rambunctious high school scenes but there is little time for development of these characters and their story suffers.
Laura Sillett plays Rusty, one of the girl group around the lead charater of Ariel. Sillett sparkles as a featured artist in the ensemble singing and dancing. Also featured are Emma Fraser who gives a sympathetic performance as Wendy Jo, the girl next door, and Gracie Lee as Urleen.
The second act begins with Cowboy Bob leading the cast in a high energy number, Still Rockin’. This features Tomas Wolstenhome who also plays bad boy Bickle. Dominic Gee Burgh is his mate Jeter and the two boys handle the violent scenes well.
The stage is a blaze of colour courtesy of a vibrant lighting design by Humphrey McDermott. It enhances a set that represents a farming town in middle America with a cleverly conceived use of a truck that serves as the interior of the church and also Ariel’s home. However the over all look of the show is over fussy and as outdated as the show itself.
The production numbers are the strongest element of the show as much for the choreography of Matt Cole as for the music from the cast. The energy and entertainment value of the music saves Footloose from drowning in outdated overly mawkish mediocrity.