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Music by Tom Snow, including songs by Eric Carmen, Sammy Hagar, Kenny Loggins, and Jim Steinman
Lyrics by Dean Pitchford
Choreographed by A.C. Ciulla
Directed by Walter Bobbie
At the Kennedy Center to Sept. 20
More like Footsore.
Oh, not quite. But hardly fancy free, either. Footloose opens with a bang an explosive, electric dance number set to the title tune but much of the rest of the show moves like an awkward teenager at his first mambo lesson. It’s got the right attitude and the right leading man, but it may have the wrong idea.
Walter Bobbie, whose celebrated Chicago revival meant high expectations for this Broadway-bound adaptation of the 1984 film, has been telling interviewers right and left that he wanted to restore some of the emotional balance cut from Dean Pitchford’s original screenplay, a thin, little outsider-upends-things tale about a city kid marooned in a Midwestern backwater where dancing has been outlawed.
And sure enough, Bobbie and his collaborators have more or less succeeded in humanizing the Rev. Shaw Moore (Martin Vidnovic), the stern preacher who dominates what passes for a political landscape in the show’s insular little slice of Middle America. But in making Moore more accessible, the creative types have deprived Footloose of a villain, and what they’ve replaced him with a conflict between two needy, flawed antiheroes just isn’t complex enough to sustain the piece.
There are structural problems, too more on which later but Footloose’s chief problem is this shift in focus away from Ren McCormack (a sexy, charismatic Jeremy Kushnier), the brooding teen whose arrival in town sets the plot moving. He and his mom (Catherine Cox) have bailed out of Chicago, unable to make ends meet after Dad bails out on them. They land in Bomont (which doesn’t seem to belong to any particular state but is said to be a 10-hour drive from the City of Big Shoulders) to take refuge in a room above a relative’s garage, but the locals, young and old alike, are suspicious of the new kid with the sharp sideburns. When Ren discovers that dancing has been banned in Bomont because a carload of the town’s brightest young things died drunk one night on the drive back from a sock hop, he figures he’s pretty much found hell on earth.
The movie, which turned a relatively obscure Kevin Bacon into a mainstream star, is hardly Hamlet, but it’s an efficient little piece of work that makes no pretense at profundity. There, Shaw’s the bad guy (and an effective one as played by John Lithgow), the book-burning Bomont adults are clearly Nazis-in-training, and Ren is the won’t-be-silenced voice of reason, the leader all the kids have been waiting for. It’s hard to complain, when the players are that cleanly cut out of cardboard and the course is that clearly marked, that the whole game is all about something as trivial as dancing.
But the stage version’s take (based on Pitchford’s original concept) sees Moore, driven to protect the town’s youth after losing his own son in that crash, not as puritanical demagogue but as dramatic counterweight for Ren, still angry over his father’s walkout. (Vidnovic’s low-key performance further distances the character from villainy.) Ren’s liaison with Moore’s daughter, Ariel (Jennifer Laura Thompson), only underscores the point: Fatherless teen and bitter bereaved father poetic, yes? Only if the characters are nuanced enough to be interesting and is it so terribly surprising that they’re not? Or that Pitchford, whose last Broadway effort was Carrie, a title that’s become shorthand for “musical theater disaster,” has reached for something that exceeds his grasp?
In this revamped Footloose, both Ren and the reverend talk about their losses, but nowhere do their actions seem to be driven by any kind of emotional damage the script’s too perfunctory to allow it. As long as that basic “show, don’t tell” adage goes unheeded, the creative team’s efforts at adding weight to the story aren’t going to work. And it’s still all about dancing, of course, which makes the veneer of seriousness the more ludicrous.
The dancing, for its part, is occasionally unhinged enough to be exciting, but too often A.C. Ciulla, restricted by the plot’s prohibition on actual dancing, settles for rolling things motorcycles, banquettes, grocery carts, kids on skates across the stage. The cumulative effect can be oddly ice-balletic, which probably isn’t what anyone wanted.
The tunes that set these artifacts moving work surprisingly well as long as they’re the tunes associated with the movie. Pitchford has managed to transform soundtrack songs like “Let’s Hear It for the Boy,” “Holding Out for a Hero,” and “Somebody’s Eyes” into plot-driven musical moments that work as character songs even if they don’t advance the action. The attitudinal Rusty (Stacy Francis), in particular, sells “Boy” to the back of the Opera House, and with Kathy Deitch and Rosalind Brown makes “Somebody’s Eyes” an effective statement about small-town gossips; in that number, even the gestures of paranoia take on rhythm.
But the new songs, with Pitchford lyrics to music by Tom Snow, are serviceable at best. Sometimes they spell real trouble, as with the flat, unconvincing 11 o’clock number “I Confess,” in which the Rev. Moore finds himself having a change of heart.
Bobbie’s direction is as assured as you’d expect and endlessly clever about finding ways to keep the stage pictures lively. (A colleague complained that the show is quite literally too flat that Bobbie doesn’t get much beyond horizontal arrangements of people and set pieces but that, while basically true, doesn’t trouble me too much.)
One or two structural hurdles remain, though: The finale is surprisingly anticlimactic, and the second-act opener, a kind of bustin’-out hoedown set at a bar an hour outside of Bomont, needs a brief setup to make it clear the action has moved beyond the city limits. (It’s worth noting, however, that home-grown comedienne Robin Baxter, she of Shear Madness and Beauty Tips and Chainsaw Repair fame, handily steals the focus in this scene and one other with her brass soprano and brash attitude.)
And though others may not agree, I’d argue that when Moore goes public with his about-face, the public shouldn’t be sitting in church pews with their backs to the audience: It makes for an oddly muted turning point.
But fix all those problems, and you’ve still got to create a conflict interesting enough to drive the show. Two alternatives: Strip the seriousness away and make Footloose simply a rousing entertainment. Nobody cares about thin motivations in a cartoon, so give us back the film’s stock players and sleek plot in a hot-colored, high-octane musical. (Ken Billington’s kaleidoscope lighting and John Lee Beatty’s stylish set are definite keepers.)
Alternatively, go much, much further down the personal-drama road. Vidnovic probably won’t work in that case; Moore needs a more forbidding aspect. Kushnier, with his quirky energy, could certainly survive the rewrite but he’ll need more to do. As it stands, his character has no interior life. They’ll need more time on stage together, too, so the audience can really see that each represents what the other is missing.