Live `Footloose' loses a step

Review: The popular movie becomes a little too tame on stage, but the song and dance remain exuberant.

February 25, 1999|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

"Footloose," a 1984 movie about the irrepressible urge to dance, would seem a natural for the stage. Throw in a handful of teen-pleasing hit songs that topped the pop charts, and "Footloose," the musical, appears to be home free.

But for a show that pits youthful exuberance against fundamentalist zeal, the touring production at the Mechanic Theatre is surprisingly tame.

The plot is simple. A Chicago teen-ager named Ren and his mom are forced to move in with relatives in a small town after Ren's dad walks out on them. Ren, played by an almost too good-looking Joe Machota, doesn't acclimate too well to small-town life. He finds a mission, however, when he learns that the local preacher has banned dancing in an over-reaction to a car accident that killed four teen-agers, including the preacher's son.

The stage adaptation -- by Dean Pitchford and director Walter Bobbie, based on Pitchford's screenplay -- makes a few improvements on the screenplay. For example, Ren's mother, who was barely a presence on screen, is now a significant character, sympathetically portrayed by Marsha Waterbury. One of the show's nine new songs is a Sondheim-esque duet, "Learning To Be Silent," which she sings with the preacher's wife. Played by Mary Gordon Murray, the wife is a considerably more modern woman than her screen counterpart, Dianne Wiest.

The musical falters, however, by downplaying the movie's element of danger. In the process, it undercuts the impact of the story, especially when it comes to Ariel, the preacher's wild daughter.

On screen, Ariel doesn't merely flirt with men, she flirts with death. On stage, however, the risks taken by Niki Scalera's perky Ariel seem limited to her short skirts and skimpy tank tops. Even after she is supposedly beaten up by her biker boyfriend, she appears on stage without so much as a scratch -- a disservice not only to her character, but to the larger issue of abusive relationships.

Similarly, despite two new soul-baring solos, Ariel's preacher father is played by Daren Kelly as far less a forceful presence than would seem necessary to dictate the rigid morals of an entire town, however small.

Nonetheless, the stultifying conformism and claustrophobic lack of privacy in this fictitious burg is one of the things the musical gets absolutely right. "Somebody's Eyes," a song composed by Tom Snow (who wrote most of the show's music), has been greatly expanded and is one of several numbers staged by Bobbie in a cinematic-like flow of changing scenes.

There are other effective songs as well. Stephanie St. James, an adorable chatterbox who plays Ariel's best friend Rusty, does a knock-out job belting "Let's Hear It for the Boy." And as Ren's gawky friend Willard, Christian Borle displays a genuine comic streak, leading three of his cronies in the new song "Mama Says."

A.C. Ciulla's choreography, clearly crucial in a musical called "Footloose," incorporates lots of athleticism. This approach makes sense for a show that is not only about teen-agers, but also ends each act with a scene in the high school gym. Machota's Ren ably leads both these numbers (which include the title song), but the actor has a preening quality that detracts from his character's requisite likability.

So how well does "Footloose" translate to the stage? Adequately, but not overpoweringly. The movie's Top 40 hits contribute most of the show's rock and roll flavor; the new songs tend to be more standard musical-comedy fare.

However, this show about Middle America should do fine on the road, which is probably why the touring production was launched so soon after the October Broadway opening. It'll also provide a slew of age-appropriate roles for school productions in years to come. In other words, shortcomings aside, "Footloose" may have the potential to become the next "Grease." That's not exactly Rodgers and Hammerstein, but many a musical has done a lot worse.

`Footloose'

Where: Mechanic Theatre, 25 Hopkins Plaza

When: 8 p.m. today through Saturday; matinees at 2 p.m. Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday

Tickets: $37.50-$65.50

Call: 410-752-1200 Pub Date: 2/25/99

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