Theater review: Footloose

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When Footloose came out of Hollywood in 1984, there were a few things in the film to explain why it remained a marketable brand long enough for the original screenwriter, Dean Pitchford, to adapt it for the Broadway stage in 1998. Most important were the hits, “Let’s Hear It for the Boy” and the title tune composed and performed by Kenny Loggins. But the raffish bad boy charisma of Kevin Bacon as Ren McCormack also lingered in the memory.

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Ren is exiled from Chicago to a hick town named Bomont, “somewhere in the heartland of America in the recent past,” where an eloquent preacher who lost his son in a car accident has prevailed upon the town council to outlaw dancing. Were it not for the musical elements in the film, we’d think we had been tossed back into the late '50s or early '60s, for the teens here have that special blandness we associate with the Beach Party onscreen romps and the equally formulaic Bye Bye Birdie on Broadway.

The lowlife edginess of Brando has been cleansed from Ren’s rebel DNA, and there’s no evidence that the sex, drugs, and long-haired incursions of Eastern cultures during the '60s ever happened — in Chicago or in Bomont. We’re really in that in-between Neverland that Grease and American Graffiti took us to, so it’s fitting that Theatre Charlotte drops the “recent past” pretense in their playbill for their current revival, ably directed by Michelle Long.

Footloose is so thoroughly infected by wholesomeness that the young Charlotte talents who made recent Theatre Charlotte productions of Hair, Rent, and Avenue Q look so miraculously professional stayed away from these auditions en masse. Yes, there are times when this Theatre Charlotte effort looks curiously like community theater! Production values are also lackluster compared to those scintillating efforts. The six-piece band led by Michael Wilkins rocks, but the costume designs miss the mark, and the nondescript set may have been calculated to make sure I called Theatre Charlotte the "Queens Road barn" at least once in this review.

Even so, thanks to the superabundance of youth talent in our city waiting their turn — including those who participate Theatre Charlotte’s Student Guild and other teen programs around town — this show is way better than what you’d expect on the volunteer community level. Or from the cliché-riddled collaboration between Pitchford and composer Tom Snow, who filled out the Broadway score.

An important key to Long’s success is the work she has done with Rev. Shaw Moore and his loyal wife Vi. Instead of giving us a portrait of the town patriarch as a fire-breathing bible-thumper, Ryan Deal bends the reverend in the direction of the brooding, hunchbacked Archibald in The Secret Garden, a role he played so brilliantly a year ago at Children’s Theatre of Charlotte — under Long’s direction. So we can still be pissed at him because of the Puritanical regime he imposes upon Bomont, yet empathize with his loss and cheer on his belated redemption.

Similarly, Allison Rhinehart mutes Vi’s submissive devotion to her husband so that, when she sings her “Learning to Be Silent” and “Can You Find It in Your Heart” ballads, we don’t reflexively recall such doormats as Julie Jordan in Carousel. Long also sharpens one of the vaguer details in Pitchford’s book, dealing with Chuck Cranston, the bully whom Ariel Moore discards when Ren arrives in town. In Hollywood, Chuck’s brutality toward Ariel would normally demand that he be punched out before the final credits roll. Nothing like that happens in Footloose, but when we reach the denouement, Long makes sure we see that Chuck is renounced by his thuggish henchmen, the source of his power.

While Justin Norwood doesn’t bring all the ruggedness and grit that we might wish for as Ren, his singing voice has enough arresting beauty to stamp him as a formidable new triple threat as soon as he flashes his dancing moves. Norwood had dropped off my radar since I saw him three years ago starring in A Tree With Arms, the teen production presented by Treehouse at the now defunct Carolina Actors Studio Theatre. You can be sure I’ll be more watchful hereafter.

Buried in the student chorus of Children’s Theatre’s Beauty and the Beast last year, Emma VanDeVelde emerges with nearly as much promise. She doesn’t bust any knockout moves, but she executes Lisa Blanton’s choreography competently when her backup trio augment her most winsome vocal, “Holding Out for a Hero.” Perhaps more importantly, she stands up to her abusive boyfriend, becoming something of a role model for her mother.

For fuller youth satisfaction, we still must look deeper in the cast. Bomont’s chief hayseed, Willard, attaches himself to the town’s coolest newcomer, becoming Ren’s best new friend. Yet he can’t summon up the nerve to go beyond friendship with Rusty — no matter how hard she tries to coax him out of his shell — and he doesn’t know a single dance step. Okay, this isn’t the most original comedy situation, but it sets up Rusty’s joyous justification of her patience, “Let’s Hear It for the Boy,” and Danielle Burke knocks it righteously out of the park.

Not to be upstaged when the Bomonters break out and experience live music and dancing in a neighboring town, Joey Kennedy takes Willard’s transformation from klutzy insecurity to dancing fool Romeo and makes it comical, spectacular, and a mere nine miles south of believable. And while “Mama Says” doesn’t break new ground melodically, Kennedy and his cronies turn it into the evening’s final showstopper.

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