That Little Town Hurt

Chicagoan, Ren McCormack, relocates to the small town of Bomont after his parents separate.  His normal teen lifestyle and love of dancing quickly bring him into conflict with the town’s uber conservative adults and the local minister who holds the true power. Adding to the conflict is the fact that Ren is smitten with the Reverend’s wild daughter, Ariel.  This is Footloose:  The Musical and it is currently playing at Bellevue Little Theatre.

As I said when I reviewed this show earlier this summer, this show truly benefits from the fact that the film’s original scriptwriter, Dean Pitchford, also helped to write the musical.  This allowed the movie’s intended story to make a smooth and faithful transition to the stage.  Blend it with some original tunes, add some 80s hits, and throw in some energetic and raucous dancing and you’ve got the formula for a pretty good night of theatre and the best show I’ve seen mounted at Bellevue Little Theatre.

Joey Hartshorn provides a pretty deep piece of direction for the production.  One of the dominant themes of the show is personal pain and the show’s three leading characters are just buried in their personal woes.  This provides a rich field for nuanced and subtle acting and Hartshorn probes those levels to their depths and gets some truly dynamic performances out of her leads.  Hartshorn also knows how to have a bit of fun where needed as the kids clown about in the right moments.  The staging is wonderful and makes full use of the theatre space (both stage and the theatre).

The ensemble is solid and some excellent supporting performances come from Cynthia Jones who has a quiet strength as Vi Moore, the wife of Rev. Shaw Moore, and serves as his bedrock as he poorly copes with his own pain.  Donovan Carr is a base thug as Chuck Cranston and one of my true regrets of the script is that he never gets the comeuppance he’s got coming to him.  Madison Becker Is stalwart and loyal as Ariel’s best friend, Rusty.  Becker also knows how to be present in a scene and I chuckled at some of her reactions to the goings-on about her.  Becker also has a dynamite singing voice shining in “Let’s Hear It For the Boy” and “Somebody’s Eyes”.  The only small note I have is that Rusty is supposed to be a motormouth so Becker can speak much faster.

Will Hastreiter dominates as Ren.  He’s a touch too old to be playing the teenaged Ren, but summons such youthful energy and angst that one tends to be sucked into the illusion.  Hastreiter brings the proper blend of decency and bravado to Ren and well communicates the fact that Ren’s bravado is a defense mechanism to assuage his own unhappiness at having to leave Chicago and his anger at being abandoned by his father.  Still, this is a guy who I’d want as a friend as he’d march with you to the gates of hell.  Hastreiter has a potent tenor which takes center stage in “I Can’t Stand Still”, “I’m Free”, and raps a bit in “Dancing is Not a Crime”.  He is also an impressive hoofer as he flips, slides, and glides around the stage.

Aimee Correa explores every crevice of Ariel’s character.  Initially, Ariel comes off as, well, slutty.  True, her morals are a little lax, but it’s her defense against the stifling imprisonment of her home life.  Ariel is also a poet, intelligent, good-hearted, and just looking to escape from her unhappy life.  Correa shows all of these facets and then some at the proper moments.  She also has a wonderfully powerful singing voice whether she’s “Holding Out For a Hero”, “Learning to Be Silent”, or thinking her time with Ren is “Almost Paradise”.

Nick Knipe is the show’s breakout performer as Willard.  Knipe nearly steals the show as the hot-tempered hick.  Knipe’s Willard always seems to be looking for a fight, but he will fight to the death in support of a friend or a just cause.  Knipe also has amazing coordination as he is able to fake lack of coordination like a champ when he is attempting to dance for the first time.  Knipe also has a real flair for comedy as he shares the unique philosophy of Willard’s mother in “Mama Says”.

Justin Dehmer gives a very complex performance as Rev. Shaw Moore.  Something in the Reverend died when 4 teens died in a tragic car accident.  That event triggered an intense anger in Moore that manifests as extreme control.  Control over the town with morality laws and control over his emotions as he attempts to suppress them.  But the anger leaks out in cutting remarks and emotional outbursts.  It’s important to remember that Moore isn’t a bad person.  He’s wounded and actually motivated to protect the town’s youth.  He just goes about it wrong.  His realization of this and subsequent confession to his congregation is one of the most beautifully real moments I’ve ever seen acted on stage.

Todd Brooks’ musical direction is very good though the volume of the music needed to be increased at a few points.  I loved Dale Hartshorn’s set with the train bridge of the city, the exterior of the Moore home and their dining room, the lockers of the school, and the burger joint.  Best of all was the cross shining in center stage as the beacon of hope needed by Bomont.  Joey Lorincz’s sounds enhance the show’s moments, especially the roaring train and its whistle that Ariel likes to answer back at the top of her lungs.  Jacy Rook’s lights are clean and clear and her use of spotlights really enhance emotional moments.  Kerri Jo Richardson-Watts’ choreography is right on the money and the best I’ve seen at BLT especially in the monstrous opening and closing numbers.  The costumes of Nancy Buennemeyer and Marya Lucca-Thyberg will take you right back to the 1980s.

This show took a little bit to get going.  I could see the nerves going at the top of the show and it felt like the cast was holding back a bit.  But, by Act II, the switch had been flipped and the now relaxed performers were tapping the full potential of the show.  I’d like to go back again and see that same relaxation in the first act so the show can bask in its full glory.

BLT definitely has a hit on its hands and I would advise you to order tickets, pronto, as last night’s nearly full house makes me think they’re going to be very hard to come by.

Footloose:  The Musical plays at Bellevue Little Theatre through Oct 2.  Showtimes are Fri-Sat at 7:30pm and Sundays at 2pm.  Tickets cost $25 and can be purchased at the Box Office, at blt.simpletix.com, or calling 402-413-8945.  Bellevue Little Theatre is located at 203 W Mission Ave in Bellevue, NE.

Cut Loose. . .Footloose

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.