I won’t dance; don’t ask me
by Michael Dresdner
Here’s my confession: I never saw the original movie, nor the remake, nor the play, so I came to Tacoma Little Theatre’s presentation of Footloose, the Musical with no preconceived notions or expectations. That’s fair, I figured.
Sadly, so was Footloose; fair, rather than great. However, that may be more the property than the presentation. After it opened on Broadway, the consensus was that the show itself was poor, but the music and talented cast made it entertaining. That’s still true.
The basic plot, in case you, like me, have been living under a rock, revolves around Ren (Kawika Huston), a high school student who deals with his job and life frustrations by dancing. He and his mother (Deric Tarabochia) leave Chicago and move in with relatives in dinky Bomont thanks to poverty brought on by a father who has abandoned them. The town, at the urging of the influential Reverend Moore (Jay Iseli), has abolished dancing. We eventually find out that’s because five years earlier, four high school students were killed in an alcohol fueled car wreck while returning from a dance. (No, they don’t ban driving or drinking; that would be too logical.)
Local slow-witted high school cowboy Willard (Carlos Barajas) befriends Ren and fills him in on the town’s back story and characters. There’s Ariel (Elise Campello), the Reverend’s rebellious daughter who secretly runs with Chuck Cranston (DuWayne Andrews), a boy from the wrong side of the tracks. There’s also a gaggle of girls led by Rusty (Antonia Darlene), who loves Willard but is blocked by his shyness and inability to dance, of all things.
Ren becomes a dancing renegade and rabble rouser, and with the help of Ariel, who is gradually falling in love with him, makes a pitch to the town council to allow dancing. They vote no, but he later wins over the Reverend, whose son was one of those killed in the crash, by showing him they both have suffered loss and thus share common ground. The Reverend changes his mind about the dance, which somehow miraculously overrules the town council.
Meanwhile, formerly clumsy Willard learns to dance with astonishing speed and alacrity. In the end, everyone dances, even the Reverend and his wife. Happiness reigns as Willard pairs with Rusty, Ren pairs with Ariel, Moore and his wife rediscover each other, and poor Chuck conveniently fades from view.
Got it? Good. Now let’s talk about the production.
In spite of some opening night rough edges that will almost certainly be smoothed as the run progresses, there was much to commend it. The large song and dance numbers are the best thing the show has going for it, and are quite good indeed. That’s not surprising, since director Chris Nardine is well known as an outstanding dancer and choreographer.
The leads and ensemble were good, with some excellent singing, some excellent dancing, and even some very good acting, but it seemed most of cast, most of the time, shone in only one or two out of three, at best. There were a few standouts, though.
The best of the bunch was Antonia Darlene as Rusty. She sings, dances and brings the sort of effervescent energy and stage presence that makes musicals great. Thanks largely to her lead, “Let’s Hear it for the Boy,” her love song to Willard, is the best song and dance number in the show.
Jay Iseli, a talented Tacoma acting mainstay, gave bombastic, imperious Reverend Moore all the gravitas he deserved, then went realistically through the play’s one convincing change of heart scene. Kudos also to Andrews as Chuck, who crackled and sparkled whenever he took center stage, but was sadly relegated to nowhere land as the script eventually writes him out of the action. We never do find out what happened to him.
The most notable weakness in the play was just that; weakness. All too often, during both songs and dialog, the cast failed to project well enough to be clearly heard. The poor acoustics of the deep TLT stage contribute to that. It’s hard to be heard on that stage from an upper level when you are behind the proscenium arch.
On the production side, the five piece band led by Wayne Hart was excellent, both by themselves and in their ability to guide and follow the actors without overpowering them. Because there are so many venues in the play, there’s no set to speak of beyond a couple of steps and a raised platform. Scenes were established with a few pieces of furniture backed up by huge, vivid background photos projected onto a rear screen. Together, they established when we were outside, in church, at the dump, in a house, or at a bar. The courthouse photo showed an American flag next to an Oklahoma flag, the only clue as to where Bomont is.
Costuming (Michele Graves) was interesting and varied. I understood the bright, almost trashy dance outfits in Chicago and in the dance scenes, but would have expected more sedate, conservative clothing on kids in school in such a repressive town. While costumes were eye catching, they did not, at least to me, firmly establish a time period when this play unfolds. Nor did anything else. There are cell phones, so I guess that means it is in the present, but some of the behavior and mores seemed at least three decades out of date.
I suspect most of the packed house on opening night already knew the story. That’s a good thing. Perhaps the best way to appreciate this talented cast is to sit back and enjoy the lively song and dance numbers, then cheer for your favorites at curtain call.
Footloose, the Musical
April 20 to May 20, 2012
Tacoma Little Theatre