'Footloose' at the Marriott keeps it light — it's about the kids and their music
Small towns afraid of dancing and alternative lifestyles (such as … enjoying dancing, I guess) have provided a fair amount of fodder for musicals. “The Prom,” the sweet-and-snarky musical comedy about a gaggle of Broadway egos descending on a small Indiana town after the high school cancels the prom rather than allow a same-sex couple to attend, is still going strong on Broadway.
It’s not nearly in the same league, but “Footloose,” the 1998 musical based on the 1984 Kevin Bacon film, offers some cheesy charm in its current revival at the Marriott Theatre under Gary Griffin’s direction.
Adapted by Dean Pitchford and Walter Bobbie from Pitchford’s original screenplay, the book hews fairly closely to the story of the film (minus the book-burning sequence in the latter) and includes the hits that -- for better or worse -- you’ve never been able to get out of your head, such as the Kenny Loggins title track and “Let’s Hear It for the Boy.” There are also serviceable original songs by lyricist Pitchford and composer Tom Snow that let the buttoned-up citizens of Bomont say what’s in their hearts, kinda like the repressed German schoolkids in “Spring Awakening.”
It’s perhaps worth noting, too, that the film’s real-life inspiration was Elmore City, Oklahoma, which banned dancing at its founding. The class of 1980 at the local high school fought — and won — a battle to allow a school prom. (The town celebrated the 30th anniversary of that game-changing event in 2010 with a — gasp! — public dance.)
Marriott last presented this show in 2005, and while things certainly haven’t become “Almost Paradise” in places dominated by the bigoted and frightened (which can also be urban America, as still-segregated Chicago knows too well), to say that it’s tapping into some gigantic trends in the zeitgeist might be overstating its importance a wee bit.
Thankfully, Griffin mostly lets the music and the fleet feet of his ensemble do the talking here. William Carlos Angulo’s choreography works beautifully in the round — the young performers seem ready to leap offstage and grab the audience by the hand at any moment. (Rest assured that doesn’t happen, though the crowd-pleasing dance party/curtain call makes that seem like a possibility.) You might wonder how kids who haven’t been allowed to dance for years get so good at it so quickly, but it’s a musical — just go with it.
More importantly, Griffin has cast this show with actors who believably capture the restlessness of all teenagers — but perhaps especially those in small towns where, as one song tells us early on, “Somebody’s Eyes” are always watching. These performers never seem like transplants from a more polished locale, such as “90210,” playing at being hicks. They’re just kids who want to have a good time. They aren’t all “Holding Out for a Hero.” Someone to talk to and dance with will work just fine.
As Ren McCormack, the Chicago kid who moves with his single mom to Bomont after Dad walks out, Aidan Wharton finds the sweet spot between hipster and geek. (His selection of T-shirts, curated by costume designer Anna Wooden, reflect a bit of Ren’s own musical eclecticism/confusion, ranging from Bowie to heavy metal.) He’s not a rebel without a cause as much as he’s a goofy kid without a filter, whose big-city mild sarcasm raises hackles, especially with Reverend Shaw Moore (Jim Stanek), who pushed the dancing ban after four kids died in a car crash coming home from a dance five years before Ren arrived.
It’s the reverend’s daughter, Ariel, who is the real dark brooding cloud of Bomont. And in Lucy Godinez’s edgy and watchful performance, she’s the real star of the show, even if musical conventions dictate that it’s Ren who has to help heal her wounds. When she screams at passing trains — the ones she hopes will take her far away one day — it’s a real act of catharsis. In fact, Godinez’s take on Ariel is so tough, one wishes we could see her simply clock her abusive grease-monkey boyfriend, Chuck (Ryan McBride). One also wishes that the book writers had given Ren’s mother, Ethel, more to do than a late-in-the-second-act pep talk for her son. Heidi Kettenring is lovely and sympathetic, but it’s hard to buy her as a licked-by-life single mom who would rather live in a spare room in her sister’s house in the middle of nowhere than figure out how to make it work in Chicago.
Johanna McKenzie Miller as Vi Moore, the reverend’s wife, gets some meatier moments. She’s a supportive spouse, but not a doormat, and it’s easy to believe that some of that starch in her spine has been handed down to her daughter.
As the second romantic leads, Monica Ramirez’s Rusty and Ben Barker’s Willard are ingratiating in all the right ways. The former’s delivery of “Let’s Hear it for the Boy” is a highlight, and the latter’s deadpan invocation of the folksy wisdom of his mother is a running gag that keeps paying off.
So you won’t come away from this “Footloose” with fresh insights into how to reach the beating heart of Red America and heal our national divisions. But as Griffin’s spirited and good-hearted production shows, a little rebellion and redemption never hurt anyone.