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Review: 'Footloose' kicks off Theatre Lawrence season with toe-tapping style
Take a big city kid, drop him into a small town, add in a generous amount of grief, mix in a classic battle of youth versus authority, and set it all to one of the most popular soundtracks of all time, and you’ve got a recipe for great entertainment at Theatre Lawrence.
“Footloose,” the 1998 musical based on the 1984 film, opened last weekend and runs through Oct. 6, kicking off TL’s first full season in its new Bauer Farm Drive facility. The show tells the story of Ren McCormack (Jacob Coons), a teenager uprooted from his Chicago home when his father leaves his mother (Robin Michael), and transplanted to small-town Beaumont, where dancing is outlawed. The Rev. Shaw Moore (Jim Hurd) lost his son in a tragic accident years ago and has turned the whole town against dancing, pop music, and other forms of “spiritual corruption.” Ren runs headlong into trouble when he attracts the attention of the Moore’s daughter Ariel (Noelle Olsen) and attempts to organize a dance for the senior class of Beaumont High.
It may be a musical based on a 1980s dance film, but “Footloose” is a show about pain, and its cast is unafraid to explore its dark emotions, dragging them out onstage and forcing the audience to confront them.
Like her father, Ariel has tried to lock her grief over the loss of her brother away, channeling it into poetry, wild and dangerous behavior, and dreams of escaping Beaumont to see the world. She falls into a destructive relationship with the sinister Chuck Cranston (a very creepy Christoph Cording), who only wants her for the sexual gratification she brings, and the status of corrupting the reverend’s daughter.
Olsen is smoldering from the moment she steps onstage. She exudes desperation and anger. Her scenes with Hurd, where the father-daughter relationship is disintegrating, are moving and raw. She delivers a yearning rendition of the Jim Steinman/Bonnie Tyler classic “Holding Out for a Hero” in a smoky mezzo that is one of the highlights of the first act.
But as intense as the grief she plays is, Olsen also develops fine chemistry with Coons, who is earnest as he weaves between the frustrated teenager, who can’t seem to figure out the rules, to the voice of reason, who has the answer to the town’s collective problem.
“That never works,” he tells Ariel, when he recognizes she is trying to run away, and Coons delivers the line so sincerely one believes he has tried running himself and knows its futility. His scene where he screams his anguish at his father to a passing train and where he confesses his pain to Moore are gut-wrenching. Both Coons and Olsen are extremely accomplished young actors to be able to give such resonance to complicated emotions.
Hurd struggles a bit with the role of the grief-stricken minister. In the first act, he is a little too staid, a little too calm with all the chaos swirling around the town, particularly his daughter. But in the second act, he is coiled, a caged tiger trying to tamp down his feelings of loss and resist the urge to explode. When he finally unburdens himself angrily to Ren, it is one of the show’s truest moments. Hurd hits the perfect notes of the desolate father, who believes no one can understand what he feels.
But “Footloose” is far from dark. It tackles big, emotional issues of loss, but it is also unabashedly fun. Sam Hay as Willard and Lakytra Hamilton as Rusty very nearly steal the show as the story’s secondary couple. A Theatre Lawrence veteran, Hay gives the best performance of his young career on that stage. His southern accent is hilarious, his comic timing always perfect, and his song “Mama Says (You Can’t Back Down)” shows off his gorgeous baritone and is one of the highlights of the show.
Hamilton is equally engaging as Willard’s would-be love interest Rusty. She commands attention whenever she is onstage, strikes the perfect balance between bubbly, love-struck teen and serious friend, and is the perfect foil to Olsen’s moody Ariel. Hamilton delivers a highly entertaining rendition of “Let’s Hear It for the Boy”, breaking the fourth wall and engaging the audience throughout the song.
Indeed, one of the pleasures of “Footloose” is listening to new versions of familiar songs. Composer Tom Snow deftly arranges the famous soundtrack’s hit numbers so that they capture the essence of the original recordings but work well in a musical setting. In particular, “Somebody’s Eyes” is much more haunting than the original recording, highlighting the difficulty of life in a small town, and “The Girl Gets Around” retains the bad boy sound of Sammy Hagar’s song while still enabling Cording to show off a gorgeous high-tenor voice. New songs blend seamlessly with the old ones, especially “Learning to Be Silent”, a lament by Moore’s wife, Vi (Erin Fox), Ren’s mother, and Ariel.
Director Annette Cook makes good use of Phillip Schroeder’s set. The band is onstage on the theater’s 30-foot revolve, and a second level is built around them. It rotates periodically to give us different settings, often while the band is still playing.
Projections onto a giant screen in the background give us the river where the tragic accident occurred, stained glass windows in the Rev. Moore’s church, and a country bar. The Moores' house is set stage left and rotates to accommodate interior and exterior scenes. The production even uses two of the pews from Theatre Lawrence’s old New Hampshire Street location, which was a church before it was repurposed to a theater in 1984 (ironically the same year “Footloose” is set).
If “Footloose” has a flaw, it is, strangely enough, the dancing. For a show based on a 1980s dance film, there is very little dancing in it, and what there is isn’t memorable. There are some entertaining moments, most notably a country two-step at the top of the second act, but the show’s big production numbers, especially its famous finale, are under-danced.
“Footloose” is, though, a special show. It is that rare adaptation that is willing to part far enough from the original to be something fine of its own. The cast and crew at Theatre Lawrence render it well and launch the inaugural season in the new building with toe-tapping style.