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Let’s Hear It for the Boy

In a small, rural town, somewhere outside of Chicago, in the middle of nowhere, strict conservatism has become the way of life. Rock and roll music, public displays of affection, drinking and (gasp!) dancing have all been forbidden by law. The town is ruled over by the uptight minister of Bomont, Reverend Moore. One tragic night, he and his wife, Vi lost their son, along with three other teenagers, in a car accident that followed a night of dancing and drinking. In his grief, Reverend Moore persuaded the town council to pass a law making it illegal to dance in Bomont.

Ren and Ethel McCormick are a typical teenager and his mother. Hoping to start a new life, they’d been abandoned by Ren’s father, and have taken refuge in the rural home of Uncle Wes and Aunt Lulu. But, as the new kid in town, Ren ruffles more than a few feathers and becomes the brunt of everyone’s jokes and anger. He eventually finds himself romantically drawn to Ariel Moore, the Reverend’s rebellious daughter. Ren tries hard to fit in, making friends with a nerdy teenager named Willard, and his girlfriend Rusty; but he’s frustrated by the rigid rules imposed upon the young people of Bomont, for an unfortunate accident that happened many years ago. He decides to rally all the other kids to persuade the town elders, including Ariel’s strict father, to drop the ordinance that forbids dancing.

If this plot sounds familiar, it’s probably because you remember seeing the 1984 film, of the same name. It’s the movie musical that made Kevin Bacon a household name. In 1998 Dean Pitchford adapted his own screenplay for the stage, assisted by director/choreographer Walter Bobbie (who, only a year before had directed the Tony Award-winning revival of “Chicago”). Some of the best songs from the movie’s wonderful soundtrack were licensed for the theatrical musical, but the score was filled out with several original songs, with music by Tom Snow and lyrics by Pitchford.

The musical took home no awards, although it was nominated for four Tonys. It did prove popular enough to run on Broadway for two years, eventually launching a National Tour. It’s also noteworthy as one of first popular movies to be successfully adapted for the stage. However, with a few exceptions, the original songs in the score don’t have the same electricity and appeal as the songs made popular by the film. Sammy Hagar’s “The Girl Gets Around,” Jim Steinman’s “Holding Out for a Hero,” Eric Carmen’s “Almost Paradise,” and both “I’m Free” and the catchy title tune, “Footloose,” by Kenny Loggins are the pulsating music that bring life to this show. Snow and Pritchford’s “Let’s Hear It for the Boy,” is their best song, but it doesn’t arrive until the second act.

Gary Griffin does a fine job of guiding his cast to create characters that are as realistic as the script allows. Working together with the dynamic choreographer William Carlos Angulo, he keeps the musical moving, making solid use of the theatre’s revolving turntable. There’s not much in the way of a scenic design beyond a few pieces of furniture and some nimble media design, created by Liviu Pasare, that’s featured high above the stage on LED screens.

The cast is really much better than the material they’re given. The musical is about the reluctance to accept change. It’s a story that shows the importance of communicating honestly with each other. Utilizing every look, gesture and choreographic move, the actors convey the play’s message that, especially in today’s world, people need to accept change and stop judging others unfairly who seem different.

A talented newcomer to the Marriott stage, Aidan Wharton is a good-looking young actor from New York City, who brings his charismatic personality, well-honed skills and an ease of execution and to the leading role of Ren McCormick. This agile triple-threat makes the most of “I Can’t Stand Still” and “Dancing is Not a Crime.” He’s joined by the always spectacularly impressive Lucy Godinez, as Ariel Moore. With one of the clearest, most beautifully expressive voices around, this gifted young actress has already impressed Chicago audiences, playing leading roles in “Legally Blonde,” “Hair,” and especially “In the Heights.” Together with Mr. Wharton, Ms. Godinez makes their power ballad, “Almost Paradise,” soar to the heavens. And this role also allows Lucy to show off her accomplished dancing skills, as well as her prowess as an excellent dramatic actress.

The ensemble is comprised of some pretty special actor/singer/dancers. Wonderful, lovable Ben Barker, forever remembered at the Marriott for his stellar performances in “October Sky” and “Spring Awakening,” is the delightfully dorky farmer and mama’s boy, Willard Hewitt. His infectious rendition of “Mama Says,” brings some much-welcome humor to Act II. Another Marriott newcomer, Monica Ramirez dazzles as Rusty, Willard’s feisty love interest. She impresses with “Let’s Hear It for the Boy,” and, along with Keirsten Hodgens, as Urlene, and Sara Reinecke, as Wendy Jo, their renditions of “Somebody’s Eyes” and “Holding Out for a Hero.” Other standouts include macho Ryan McBride, a scene-stealer in Windy City’s “Noises Off,” as Ariel’s horny, bad-boyfriend, Chuck Cranston; Nick Cosgrove, a strong ensemble singer/dancer, who makes the joint jump as both Travis and Cowboy Bob with the Act II opener, “Still Rockin;’” and the multitalented Kyle Skyler Urban, who plays Chuck’s good ole boy buddy, Lyle.

The adults in this musical are sadly underwritten and seem to be little more than props. The starring role of Reverend Moore, isn’t a zealot in the way that John Lithgow portrayed him in the film. The role was softened for Broadway, and he’s played here by the excellent Jim Stanek (Broadway’s “Fun Home” and “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder”), with most of the fire and brimstone watered down. This actor does well with his ecclesiastical musical numbers, such as “Heaven Help Me;” and he’s especially effective in his dramatic, 11th hour revelatory scene with Ren. But Mr. Stanek has a tough row to hoe.

Johanna McKenzie Miller, a familiar face on the Marriott stage, as well as all over Chicago, is perfect as his supportive wife, Vi. She deserves far more than just a single solo, but Ms. Miller manages to make “Can You Find It in Your Heart?” one of the highlights of this production. The same is true of the exquisite Heidi Kettenring, who beautifully plays Ethel McCormick, Ren’s suddenly single mother. While she’s given a few choice dramatic moments to sink her teeth into, and gets to join Vi and Ariel in the plaintive musical number, “Learning to Be Silent,” Ms. Kettenring’s incomparable talents are sadly wasted.

Don’t get the wrong impression: this isn’t a bad show. There are many entertaining moments to recommend it. However, with the exception of all the familiar, toe-tapping pop songs, that’ve been borrowed from the original film, and William Carlos Angulo’s high-octane, choreographed production numbers, that showcase the talents of this gifted cast, the play feels flat. Most of the book scenes don’t build very much. The characters, particularly the adults, are two-dimensional, despite Gary Griffin’s wise guidance and tight direction. But this musical is enjoyable and entrancing. The show’s still relevant because it illustrates that people still need to learn how to positively deal with change and to accept those around them who seem different. The Ren McCormicks of this world need to be respected and listened to, so Let’s Hear It For the Boy!