It’s tempting to say that the folks who put together the musical “Footloose” (Dean Pitchford, Walter Bobbie and Tom Snow) should have called their wan effort “Screw Loose.” After all, the movie on which it’s based, a 1984 confection starring Kevin Bacon as a bland small-town rebel and John Lithgow as a closed-minded preacher, isn’t exactly rich source material. Yet it’s conceivable that something more could have been made of this essentially innocuous story had Pitchford and company simply injected a little more energy into the effort. As it stands, the show, a critical flop on Broadway but now on national tour, provides auds with little reason to dance.
Plot is thin and requires only cursory examination. Chi natives Ren McCormack (an uncomfortable Joe Machota) and his mother Ethel (an underused Marsha Waterbury) have unhappily relocated to Bomont, a small town somewhere in the American heartland. There, they encounter a curious dichotomy: All the adults appear to be living in some sort of Stepford world, while the adolescents inhabit a milieu that’s part “Rebel Without a Cause,” part “Happy Days.” Strictly out of bounds, however, are any terpsichorean endeavors, forbidden by law in the wake of a car accident that killed four teens, including the son of the powerful Rev. Shaw Moore (the imposing Daren Kelly). Subplots examine the unhappy life of Moore’s wife, Vi (an affecting Eileen Barnett), and daughter, Ariel (a spunky Niki Scalera); comic relief arrives in the form of Willard Hewitt (an easygoing Christian Borle), Ren’s only real pal and something of feisty sap.
As entire story revolves around revoking the dance-ban ordinance, there’s not much room here for character development. That’s OK so long as musical numbers sustain interest and infuse the show with vim. Unfortunately, they don’t. Helmer Bobbie (so inspired when handling the recent revival of Kander and Ebb’s “Chicago”) stumbles badly in opening this production with show’s title song, “Footloose.” The move drains excitement from the grand finale, a senior-class prom, turning the number into just another reprise.
The songs themselves are all over the place. Largely banal lyrically, they embrace a melange of musical styles. Best of bunch is the most out-of-place, “Learning To be Silent,” a Sondheimesque ballad poignantly sung by Barnett. “Mama Says,” featuring the goofy Borle and a backup trio, provides welcome levity and some bona fide style. And “Let’s Hear It for the Boy,” the most familiar song after “Footloose,” gets a C&W twist from Stephanie St. James and the chorus.
With lines like “You are either very brave or very stupid” and “I’ll fight city hall,” book is a flat-out embarrassment. (It’s telling that in the program, no one owns up to writing it.) A.C. Ciulla’s predictable choreography is adequate but not as, well, footloose as one had hoped. Ciulla certainly should have done more with “I’m Free,” in which the teens, in gym attire, decide that dancing will set them free. Toni-Leslie James’ costumes make little impression. John Lee Beatty’s sets, on the other hand, are unaccountably spare, even for a touring production, with only the railroad bridge in act two proving moderately interesting.