Review: Footloose, a Musical

Last Friday night I attended Beef and Boards Dinner Theatre’s production of Footloose. A show filled with famous rock and pop songs from the eighties, rebellious dancing teens and a heartthrob to boot, how could I not be excited to see such elements collide on stage at Beef and Boards (north of Indianapolis downtown). Footloose seems right up their alley. The production, though not the singing dancing spectacular I was expecting from this Indianapolis theatre, which specializes in singing and dancing, had a few strong points in unexpected places.

The phenomenon of Footloose swept the United States starting in 1984. The movie had unforgettable performances from Kevin Bacon (as Ren McCormack), Lori Singer (as Ariel Moore) and John Lithgow (as Reverend Shaw). It gained popularity not only among a generation of teens in the mid eighties, but in teenage Kevin Bacon fans through the past two and half decades. When the show was adapted for the stage in 1998 (nearly fifteen years later), it was given a rebirth and reached an entirely new generation of musical theatre lovers. Needless to say, having never seen the musical version myself, I walked into Beef and Boards with high expectations that they would pull off this rock and roll musical with ease and style.

In brief, the story of Footloose belongs to Ren McCormack (Dominic Sheahan-Stahl). As a young Chicagoan, Ren and his mother, Ethel (Megan McKinney) suddenly find themselves without a father and without a husband, respectively. In an attempt to regroup, the pair move to small town Bomont, Texas to live with family. A big change from the city life Ren had grown accustomed to, Bomont offered a lot to learn. As Ren meets the various town folks including his best friend Willard (Happy Mahaney) and his love interest Ariel (Erin P. West), he discovers a town where dancing is illegal and a mysterious veil hangs over the people. Ren, with no outlet to speak of and too many enemies to mention, takes up the crusade against the town’s morally misguided law.

I settled into my seat at Beef and Boards, and after a borderline gluttonous dinner from Chef Odell Ward’s buffet, waited patiently for the the spectacle to begin. One important note about my review. Through last minute scheduling issues, I had to move my tickets from Saturday to Friday night, and ended up with perhaps the worst seats in the house (the very back of house right). But I admit I was thankful for the opportunity to see Beef and Boards staging from a different angle. With solid stage pictures (during musical numbers) from every angle, it seemed choreographer Doug King had a handle on making a show staged in three quarter round seating, accessible to even the nose bleed seats.

However, when it came to blocking in the scenes between song and dance numbers, something was a miss. The actors spoke to each other almost straight on, with a little bit of cheat out to the front of the stage (as if they were acting on a proscenium). There is a simple idea when staging in the round that places actors on a diagonal, so at least one face is visible from every seat in the house. Unfortunately during important plot points, a near two thirds of the audience saw only the backs of actors heads blocking the faces of other actors heads. To me this suggests a bit of laziness in blocking on director Doug Stark’s behalf, and presented a problem in trying to follow the subtleties in performance.

The staging had one major thing working for it, the set. Scenic designer Michael Layton clearly understands this theatre space and how to design for three quarter round. The revolve in Beef and Boards production of Footloose was maybe the coolest and most functional set on the Beef and Boards stage all year (though it is a close call when measured against designs for The Foreigner). With a variety of locations throughout the show from a church chapel to a honkey tonk bar to a kitchen room, Footloose presents many scenic challenges. Through a revolve that was designed to be both nondescript and specific (with the right props), Layton created believable playing spaces throughout, with virtually no lag time between changes. Kudos to him!

Now onto the meat of the show, the performances broken down into three categories: dancing, singing and acting. My date to the show saw a touring Broadway production of Footloose, and assured me that the choreography was nothing to write home about. But with fun moves from the eighties and the limited abilities of actors cast for their voices not their feet, the dance moves in Footloose were definitely passable. However, it was unfortunate to see members of the ensemble upstage the lead actors in the big dance numbers. With no lines and no solos (that I remember), the award for best dancer goes to Jarvis B. Manning Jr., who played the role of Ryan (according to the program). I only wish this kid had been featured more. The energy and exuberance with which he danced put the others on stage to shame.

What the show lacked in dancing, it made up for in singing, but again in places that I didn’t (but should have) expected. With age comes wisdom (and talent, it seems). Janet Essenpreis in the role of Vi Moore (the Reverend’s wife) captured the hearts of her audiences with two beautiful featured vocal performances. Though the main plot lines in Footloose belong to the teens, Essenpreis blew those kids out of the water when it came to sheer vocal talent. But it was the role of Vi that was nominated for a Tony Award for Best Actress, so I guess I shouldn’t be so shocked. When paired with Megan McKinney’s Ethel for the tragic ballad “Learning to Be Silent,” the pair nearly brought me to tears with the delicacy of their performance. And then again when Essenpries took the stage alone for “Can You Find It In Your Heart?” she proved she was no one song wonder.

In addition, the female vocalists deserve a nod for their work in the singing department. An ensemble composed of Amanda Lawson, Cara Noel Antosca and Da’Keisha N. Bryant created a successfully ominous feeling with the eerie ballad, “Somebody’s Eyes.” Again in “Let’s Hear It For The Boys,” Beef and Boards familiar face Amanda Lawson rocked out on stage. However, when it came to the sung performances from the two lead teens, Ren and Ariel, the outcome was underwhelming. Though they hit the stage with powerful voices in the Act I outro and “I Need A Hero” respectively, when it came to their love ballad Sheahan-Stahl and West missed the mark. “Almost Paradise,” situated neatly in Act II as the lovers finally confess their feelings, almost ruined the romantic arch. The pair sounded atrocious, going sharp in one moment and flat in the next, unable to match pitch for more than a moment in what should have been an unforgettable number.

Last but not least, the acting. Ren McCormack’s right hand man, Willard played by Happy Mahaney, stole the hearts of the entire room. I was expecting Footloose to have a heart throb, but I wasn’t expecting it to be the male lead’s goofy sidekick. Mahaney’s version of the lovable, quirky Willard was near perfection. Making the audience giggle on almost every line and mining for bits and moments throughout, it was clear that Mahaney was having fun. Unfortunately his talent overshadowed Sheahan-Stahl, who largely failed to step up to the part of hero, heart throb or believable leader. With a breathy spoken performance throughout, Sheahan-Stahl failed to capture hearts in the way Ren McCormack needs in order to make his case succeed. Instead, I was busy watching to see what funny thing Willard would do next.

As the villainous Reverend Shaw, Eddie Curry brought himself to the role. Failing to create a villain you love to hate, instead Curry’s Shaw was morally troubled, but basically good man clearly just looking out for his daughter. Though not as satisfying as John Lithgow’s border line evil Shaw Moore, Curry’s performance was just as effective. Overall, the ensemble work in this show made it extremely entertaining, despite a few hitches in the featured performances.

For additional information about Footloose at Beef and Boards Dinner Theatre, visit their website.

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Now through March 21, 2010

Beef and Boards Dinner Theatre

9301 North Michigan Road
Indianapolis, IN 46268