Ren McCormack relocates from Chicago to the small, rural town of Bomont. He struggles to fit in as he is eyed with suspicion by the town’s adults who beat him down spiritually with their morality laws banning dancing and rock music within the town limits. A budding relationship with the rebellious daughter of a powerful, influential preacher inspires Ren to challenge the town’s ordinance and provide some emotional healing for himself. . .and others. This is Footloose currently playing at Great Plains Theatre.
If you’re a child of the 80s like myself, then you know this play was inspired by a hit teen movie of the same name. Teen movies of this time frame embraced similar themes and characters. You had the loner hero, the rebellious kid trying to escape from under the thumb of controlling parents, the crusty authority figure, and the smug and pompous bully that you can’t wait to see pulverized. Well, this show has all those cliches and then some. It’s also one of the five best musicals I’ve ever seen.
The show is helped greatly by the fact that Dean Pitchford, who wrote the original film, also helped write the musical. This allows the show to mostly retain its original themes and ideas. It’s also a surprisingly sensitive story whose dominant theme is finding peace. A great many of this show’s primary characters are emotionally wounded or broken and all are following a path towards patching up those spiritual injuries. Throw in a fun score laced with original songs plus hits from major 80s stars and you’ve got a fun-filled night that might even squeeze some tears from your eyes.
Mitchell Aiello’s direction is precisely on point with this show. He definitely embraces the 80sness of the show, but does an excellent job emphasizing the show’s themes with the quieter, more emotional sequences being quite potent and mesmerizing. He’s staged the show well, utilizing the whole theatre and well placing his actors so all faces can be seen. Aiello has also guided his troupe to very strong, developed performances.
There were way too many good performances for me to cite in this review, but some of these performances come from Hannah Hill who’s a lovable motormouth as Rusty and, man, can she belt out a tune, especially the show’s namesake number and “Let’s Hear it For the Boy”. Erica C. Walker is sweet and sensitive as Vi Moore, wife of Rev. Shaw Moore and her beautiful, plaintive voice shines in two of the show’s saddest numbers “Learning to Be Silent” and “Can You Find it In Your Heart?”. Dylan Ray Herrin is utterly punchable as the local thug and bully, Chuck.
Carson Zoch is not only a gifted actor, but he’s also, in my nearly thirty years in the business, the best hoofer I’ve seen grace a stage. He brings an irresistible charm to Ren and is immensely likable, yet you can see the anger bubbling under the surface. The anger takes the form of his fighting against authority and ramming his foot into his mouth when he gets nervous. But he’s also a guy you’d want as a friend as he is noble and would follow a friend to the gates of hell to provide support. That nobility is important because it allows Zoch to really reflect the pain he feels from the distrust, poor treatment, and outright hostility from Bomont’s denizens. Zoch has a fantastic tenor to go along with his flaming feet which lets him shine in numbers such as “I Can’t Stand Still” and “Dancing is Not a Crime”.
Maddie Allen really gives a multifaceted performance as Ariel Shaw, daughter of the town’s preacher. At first, she comes off a little mean-spirited, even slutty. Then you realize the mean-spiritedness is really a reflection of her own anger at her crumbling relationship with her father and her looseness is her attempt to escape from the prison of her life. But underneath she’s got a heart of gold and hidden depths. Allen really does a superlative job letting Ariel’s real nature peek out and regain control over the course of the show as she opens herself up to Ren. Allen’s voice is ideal for rock and she sizzles with turns in “Holding Out For a Hero” and “Almost Paradise”.
Tim Falk is the crusty authority figure as Rev. Shaw Moore. However, there’s a twist to this character. He isn’t a villain because he’s nasty. On the contrary, he’s actually motivated by very good intentions which is the element from which the best villains arise. And villain is probably too strong a word. Antagonist would be better. Falk’s Moore can be unbelievably cold. He never loses his cool. He just has a matter-of-fact way of talking that leaves you feeling like you were slapped. A devastating loss in his past prompts him to try to protect Bomont’s youth with morality laws, but also blinds him to the reality that he is just promulgating his own pain on the town. Falk is good at showing flashes of the inspirational person he once was and the conflict between the man he was and the man he is gets center stage in “Heaven Help Me” where he asks God to help him reach others again.
Matthew Glen Clark is a joy to watch as Willard. The character is a bit of a stereotype as he is a hick all the way from clothes to personality. But his Sean Astin-like charm makes you forget all that. Clark’s Willard is a decent kid and a loyal friend who will jump into a fight wherever he sees a wrong that needs to be righted, be it with his words or his fists. Clark has got some impressive dance moves which is best proven by the character’s seeming inability to dance in “Let’s Hear it For the Boy”. But when he learns how to dance, watch out. His feet are greased lightning. Clark’s Willard is also a bit of a town philosopher as he often shares the wisdom (and insanity) of his mother particularly in his featured number “Mama Says”.
Melissa Ford has provided one of the two best pieces of choreography I’ve seen on stage. She truly excels in large group numbers as her performers flawlessly execute her moves with smooth as silk dancing with the finale being a particular success. Alicia Santee and her honkytonk band (Gaby Fluke and Jacob Andres) do an incredible job of playing this score with simply keys, guitar, and percussion. Becky Dibben’s costumes suit the locale and the personality of the characters from the southwestern/rural clothes of Bomont’s youth to the more formal gear of Bomont’s adults to the more laid-back Midwest clothes of Ren. Mitchell Aiello has designed a simple, bare bones set of water tower and phone lines to depict Bomont and uses a wooden entryway to depict a club entrance and a window to show a private home. Kent Buess’ lights really add a certain zip to the musical numbers with their use of colors and spotlights.
The only disappointment of the show is that the bully never gets the comeuppance he deserves. There were also some sound difficulties in Act I when microphones seemed to go dead at various points. Still, that did little to stop the momentum of this show which is truly fun and has more than a bit of heart. So pardon me for being a little corny, if you gotta cut loose, go see Footloose.
Footloose plays at Great Plains Theatre through June 12. Showtimes are 2pm on Wed, Sat, and Sun and 7:30pm Thurs-Sat. Tickets cost $40 ($20 for students) and can be purchased at www.greatplainstheatre.com. Great Plains Theatre is located at 215 N Campbell St in Abilene, KS.