Footloose at The Kennedy Center

TheatreBloom rating:

In the summer of 1984, a little movie with a big soundtrack took the world by storm and launched a young up-and-coming leading man for whom at the time you’d be pressed to find movie connections of two degrees into the stratosphere as the ubiquitous megastar Kevin Bacon. Filling out the cast with veteran actors like John Lithgow and Dianne Weist along with breakout performances from young actors like Lori Singer, Chris Penn, and Sarah Jessica Parker, Kenny Ortega’s Footloose defined a decade in both music and fashion. A generation of young men (this future critic among them) flipped their collars, rolled up their sleeves, spiked their hair, and danced à la young Bacon, and the Billboard chart-topping soundtrack went solid platinum filled with the biggest hits for superstars of the day like Kenny Loggins, Bonnie Tyler, Sammy Hagar, Annie Wilson, Mike Reno, and Deniece Williams.

In 1998, a musical version hit Broadway with the bulk of the movie score plus new songs by film composers Dean Pitchford (lyrics) and Tom Snow (music) that failed to capture the dynamics of the movie source. The musical has become mostly a staple of high school and community groups today, After two solid seasons of amazing entries in their Broadway Center Stage series, The Kennedy Center took a chance with this little musical that wasn’t a time-tested golden age classic like The Music Man or How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying or a modern day classic like Little Shop of Horrors or The Who’s Tommy. But if any eyebrows were raised on the prospects of success for this production, let it be assured that the Kennedy Center has once again, with an assist from savvy director Walter Bobbie, struck gold with their third season opener in Footloose.

Everyone knows the plot. City boy moves to small town where dancing is banned. City boy wants to dance and butts heads with the locals. Audience familiarity with the iconic score and characters can work both ways, but the cast all land solidly on the side of success in this production. J. Quinton Johnson (Hamilton, the Kennedy Center’s In the Heights) is a departure from the Ren McCormick defined by Kevin Bacon. Truthfully, in the beginning he seems more mature than the rest of the company cast as all his high school counterparts, but as he eases into the story, his fish out of water persona as well as his easy demeanor interacting with all his castmates helps him settle in as a winsome hero. He excels with an intense first act finale of Loggins’ “I’m Free” and brings subtle and stunning levels to “Almost Paradise”, the Mike Reno/Annie Wilson power ballad he shares with the stunning Isabelle McCalla. By the time he takes on the town council in an impassioned and well-prepared plea to abolish the anti-dancing ordinances in order to have a school prom, he has hit full stride as leading man.

McCalla (The Prom) is pure fireworks as Ariel Moore, fluidly transitioning from the fresh-faced preacher’s daughter at church to the rebellious, red-booted daughter-of-a-preacher-man after hours. She gets the action off to a lively start with a rousing duet with small town bad boy Chuck Cranston (Joshua Logan Alexander) in a sexy and playful rendition of Sammy Hagar’s “The Girl Gets Around”, but she commands center stage with a fiery performance of Bonnie Tyler’s “I Need A Hero” and matches Johnson level for level from restrained to powerhouse on “Almost Paradise”.

An amazing ensemble full of top-notch talent add a surplus of infectious youthful energy with big vocals and slick dance moves in all the big solid gold dance numbers. Alexander as Cranston with Jess LeProtto and J. Savage as his boys are a hot but dumb trio of half intimidation/half dumbass, a salute to all those who peak in high school. Nicole Vanessa Ortiz, Grace Slear, and Lena Owens as Ariel’s girlfriends Rusty, Urleen, and Wendy Jo provide killer backup vocals on “Hero” and take center in an eerie take on Karla Bonoff’s “Somebody’s Eyes”. Ortiz is a standout as Rusty, perfectly blending the wide-eyed awkwardness of young Sarah Jessica Parker with the infectious dance floor vocals of Deneice Williams on the rousing production number “Lets Hear It For The Boy”.

But in a solid corps of hardworking, energetic young performers who carry the top 40 energy of the show, the breakout performance of the evening is Peter McPoland as choreographically challenged, dimbulb, scene stealing good ol’ boy Willard Hewitt. McPoland, a recent high school graduate (making his stage debut at the Kennedy Center no less), is perfect goofball country-boy charm throughout. Simultaneously sweet, clueless, hot-headed, and loyal, he is a particular delight to watch transform from left-footed doofus duckling to light-footed king-of-the-floor dancing swan during “Let’s Hear It For he Boy”. And it’s Willard that Snow and Pritchford graced with an added 11:00 number, “Mama Says”, which McPoland admirably milks for all its humor and country-fried charm, making it a comic peak of the show.

Like the movie, Bobbie wisely stocks the adult characters with accomplished veterans. Michael Parks (Dear Evan Hansen) is perfection as antagonist Rev. Shaw Moore. He combines the rural tortured reserve of John Lithgow with the polished charm and Bible-thumping intensity of Billy Graham, bringing an extra layer to his performance that is captivating. In addition to all the fire and brimstone he spews throughout motivating our hero to promote change, Park also provides a particularly touching moment when he finally opens his mind to embrace it.

In the pivotal roles of the mothers, to say Bobbie cast veterans is a bit of an injustice. We are treated to Broadway legends—no, royalty—in Rebecca Luker (The Music Man, Showboat, The Secret Garden) as Vi Moore and Judy Kuhn (Les Miserables, Chess, Fun Home, the singing voice of Disney’s Pocahontas) as Ethel McCormick. Usually secondary to forgettable roles, Luker and Kuhn are radiant stars that make them memorable. While none of the additional score written for the adults is up to these leading ladies’ standards (but really, for two vocalists whose catalogue includes a century of masterpieces like “Til There Was You”, “After the Ball”, “Why Do I Love You”, “A Heart Full of Love”, Nobody’s Side”, I Know Him So Well”, and the Academy Award Winning “Colors of the Wind”, can one really expect more?), they elevate Pitchford and Snow’s B-sides to welcome unexpected pleasures. In their extremely capable hands, the usual throwaway “Learning to Be Silent” becomes a master class in subtle vocal beauty. (The mid-song addition of McCalla to make this a trio is also an improvement over the original,) Luker also quietly shines in her emotional plea to Parks at his lowest, “Can You Find It In Your Heart?”. In the movie The First Wives Club. Goldie Hawn’s character observes that in Hollywood there are three ages for actresses: babe, district attorney, and Miss Daisy. Broadway sadly has its analogous tracks: ingenue, Elle Woods, and mom. Watching the sublime Luker and Kuhn travel this arc makes it all too clear that Broadway needs to develop more properties for talents like theirs, creating more roles for women of a certain age beyond Glinda and Elphaba. Having the opportunity to see these two icons share the same stage should be reason enough to rush to the box office and secure your tickets. Thought for the Kennedy Center, what if you consider bringing them back next season for something to showcase their real talents, like, say, Luker in Mame or Kuhn in Gypsy? This critic will be back with a guaranteed rave.

Once again, even though the production team is officially operating both in concept and execution of the show under the “concert” blanket, no one scales back. Paul Tate dePoo III changes gears and switches the balance of serviceable set and functional projections this time. This time, his industrial scaffolding serves as the primary focus serving as everything from high school, country church, and farm store, to railroad tracks, train bridge, dance palace, town hall, and such. His projections, usually outstanding to visually fill out the scenery are still ever-present but downplayed as not to visually distract from the real focus of the show, the iconic music. Watch for clever touches this time like the station wagon outside the church.

Cory Pattak also wisely downplays his light plot considering the dreary midwestern backdrop to the bulk of the action. However he jumps into dancefloor gear to amp things up for the musical numbers. John Weston assists them with the usual flawless sound, critical here for a soundtrack a generation grew up with on the radio, in the cinemas, and on MTV. And costume designer David C. Woolard also follows the lead of the film for inspiration, 80s country chic with smalltown glamor for the final prom performance of the title number. Fun but not too city flashy.

Director Walter Bobbie adeptly understands how to adapt the well-known screenplay to stage, making it work in a different medium but absolutely knowing when to play proper salute. Not only did he direct the original 1998 Broadway production (which premiered at the Kennedy Center), but he also assisted Pitchford in shaping his screenplay for stage. With hindsight, the pair have again smartly tweaked their original book for this production which has resulted in a tighter script and a better flow to the show. The aforementioned addition of Ariel to the mothers’ duet has provided that number more vocal and emotional richness. They have also greatly tightened the second act, cutting an pointless two-step ballad from the country dance palace opening of act two, keeping all the action and energy upbeat from a Garth Brooksian opener “Still Rockin’” until Ortiz, McPoland, and company nail “Let’s Hear It For The Boy” to the dancefloor. They also trimmed some superfluous songs from the end of the show which slowed the plot down, now allowing the evening to flow at the pace of a movie as we are conditioned. This new production couldn’t be in firmer and surer hands.

But the rock stars of this production are, as should be for this pop classic piece, musical director Sonny Paladino and choreographer Spencer Liff. Paladino, aided by the typically stellar Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra, gives this icnonic chart topping score all the sound and energy it requires, preserving the essence of what we remember but tempered with the individual talents of this outstanding cast. Liff succeeds again giving the musical numbers the visual flare expected from original master Kenny Ortega and the MTV/Solid Gold interpretations, but with his own contemporary sensibilities and energy that a live production demands. He also conceives an inspired piece of choreography featuring wrist lights for “Somebody’s Eyes”. Let’s hear it for these boys. Their combined efforts soar.

As usual, the only regret of this production is the fact that it runs a mere five more performances. If only the Kennedy Center could tape these concerts for prosperity to televise on PBS or limited theatre release, to reach a larger audience as they have all deserved, But that not being the case, hurry and get your tickets to relive the soundtrack of the last great age of top 40 music. #EverybodyCutFootloosea

Running Time: Approximately 2 hours and 15 minutes with one intermission

Footloose plays through October 14, 2019, as part of the Broadway Center Stage initiative at The Kennedy Center in The Eisenhower Theatre of The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts— 2700 F Street NW in Washington, DC. For tickets call the box office at (202) 467-4600 or purchase them online.

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