Sunday, July 21, 2019

"Footloose" at Artistry

Artistry is opening their 2019-2020 season with the musical adaptation of the hit 1984 movie Footloose. I've seen it once before, at the Chanhassen pre-blog, which means I remember nothing about it. As a musical it's pretty weak, but there is still plenty to enjoy about it, including the talented young cast. The other musicals in Artistry's season (in addition to the classic play Our Town) are ones I'm more excited about - the rarely done A New Brain and Mame, and the regional premiere of The Bridges of Madison County (which, despite being a movie/book adaptation, features a flawlessly stunning score by Jason Robert Brown). In the meantime, you can enjoy some fun '80s tunes in Bloomington this summer.

A brief plot rundown: single mother Ethel and her teenage son Ren move from Chicago to the small town of Bomont to live with her sister and brother-in-law. Reverend Shaw preaches the evils of the world, and along with fellow city council members has outlawed dancing in response to a car accident that killed four teenagers on their way home from a dance. He keeps a tight rein on the town, but less so his daughter, who frequently sneaks out of the house to go out with her bad boy boyfriend. Ren feels stifled in the small town, and goes on a mission to convince the city council to allow dancing. After a heart-to-heart with the Reverend, he relents, and the community is healed by the power of music and dancing.

I haven't seen the movie in ages, if ever (for the record, I was 11 when it came out, perhaps a bit too young). So I can't say how it holds up today. But this musical adaptation, written in 1998, doesn't hold up so well. The female characters are underwritten, especially the Reverend's wife and Ren's mom, pretty much relegated to the supporting female role. And the idea of a religious leader who is also the political leader of a town, making oppressive rules, is a little scary in today's environment (Wikipedia tells me that in the movie, Bomont was located in Utah, which explains the religious strictness and unfortunate mingling of church and state). There are several instances of domestic violence that are never fully addressed. Then there's the music. Almost half of the songs are from the movie ("Holding Out For a Hero," "Let's Hear It For the Boy," "Almost Paradise," and of course the super fun title song), and they're the highlights of the show. But the songs that were written for the musical (composed by Tony Snow, who wrote some of the songs for the movie, with lyrics by book writer and movie screenwriter Dean Pitchford) are a bit trite, and don't seem to fit the style of the movie songs. I almost wish they had gone full-out jukebox musicals and found songs of the era that fit; then at least it would be an '80s nostalgia piece, instead of a mish-mash. A few of the new songs work, including "Mama Says," but that may be due to the exuberant charm and undeniable likability of Reese Britts as Willard. The song "Learning to Be Silent" features some gorgeous harmonies by the underused Shana Eisenberg as the Reverend's wife and Jennifer Eckes as Ren's mom, along with the Angela Steele as Ariel, but a song about women silencing their own voices is really hard to stomach. They all do eventually find their voice, but in small and unsatisfying ways. It's 2019, I don't want to hear a story about silent women eventually sort of finding their voices; I want women characters with strong voices and agency from the beginning. At least Ariel is pretty strong from the get-go, defying her Pastor father's rules to live her own life.

the cast of Footloose (photo by Devon Cox)
But here's what I did enjoy about the show: this large, talented, energetic, diverse, and young cast! In a show about teenagers, it's refreshing to see so many young actors who are not so far from their teenage years (or still in them). 20-year-old Ethan Davenport plays Ren with confidence, charm, and some pretty smooth moves; as Ariel, the effervescent Angela Steele is a powerhouse taking no prisoners; and the aforementioned Reese Britts steals every scene he enters. Erin Nicole Farsté is a delight as Ariel's best pal Rusty; Austin Lewis is scary dark as Ariel's abusive boyfriend; and Paul R. Coate sings beautifully and brings humanity to the role of the closed off and controlling Rev. Shaw (not an easy task).

The versatile industrial set (designed by Rick Polenek) features a balcony and sliding doors, and easily transforms from a train yard to a dance hall to a church to the family home, with a few set pieces and a little imagination. Director Benjamin McGovern keeps his large cast moving smoothly around the set, utilizing all spaces, and choreographer Heidi Spesard-Noble has created some fun dances, including a gym scene that showcases the cast's athleticism. Music Director Anita Ruth leads the eight-piece band through the score (and a few '80s hits that may or may not have been part of the score), although it would have been fun to see them on stage. Last but not least, resident costume designer Ed Gleeman has created some fun '80s costumes.

Footloose continues at Artistry in the Bloomington Center for the Arts through August 18, and be sure to check out the rest of their new season.