It was a smart move to send “Footloose” dancing on the road before shimmying onto Broadway next month. Despite some splashy visuals, stellar choreography and flashes of directorial brilliance from Walter Bobbie, Gotham sophisticates are still likely to sneer at this simplistic and uneasy hybrid of 1980s rock ballads and disco numbers retrofitted for the stage with a collection of derivative new numbers. The thin production needs some quick-fire manipulation before October if “Footloose” is to win critical approval. But the combination of familiar title and tunes, youthful vitality, slick transitions and family-friendly sentimentality make B.O. prospects look much more solid. The equally simplistic source movie, after all, was a monster hit.
The big question about the popularity of “Footloose” will be whether today’s urbane youngsters (along with Gen Xers and older boomers who remember the hit movie with affection) are ready to embrace such a likable but avowedly milquetoast piece of musical theater.
Back in 1984, the tale of the kid from Chicago who overturns a ban on dancing in the small town that becomes his new home was at least vaguely hip. In the expanded theatrical version of Dean Pitchford’s screenplay, the crowd of teenagers craving to boogie in this Texan Sticksville — known as “Bomont” — are all straight out of the “Grease” cookie-cutter.
And most of Tom Snow’s new numbers are retro Broadway. In the second act, Pastor Moore (who enacted the ban after the post-dancing death of his son in a drunk-driving accident) launches into memories of his dead offspring in “I Confess,” an ersatz “Soliloquy” more in stylistic sync with “The Carousel Waltz” than “Let’s Hear It for the Boy.”
Therein lies a serious problem with the show: When and where are we? Everyone is dressed in contempo duds, making it hard to swallow the adults’ complete ignorance of modern life when their kids refer to surfing the Net.
Then there’s the problem of the rock numbers that reference cultural life 14 years ago. Terrific numbers like “Almost Paradise” and “Holding Out for a Hero” (along with the aforementioned Denise Williams chart-topper) are all hummable and appealing tunes, but we don’t need orchestrations that play right into the 1980s stereotypes.
The show’s leading city slicker also needs to toughen up his act. The supposedly delinquent Ren (Kevin Bacon in the movie; now newcomer Jeremy Kushnier) is such a pretty, smiling and likable young fellow here that it makes no sense that the forces of morality in Bomont are so appalled by his presence. Kushnier sings and dances well, but he’s devoid of visible anger and makes no evident emotional journey.
With a strong voice and cool sensibility, Jennifer Laura Thompson is more successful in the love-interest role of Ariel, the pastor’s slutty daughter, but the two leads treat their romance with such casual indifference that the show’s requisite sexual fire never burns.
In the now much larger role of Moore, Martin Vidnovic is tuneful and empathetic. But like Kushnier, he lacks fire and anger, which makes the ultimate reconciliation between these two opposites predictable and uninteresting.
Minor characters are mainly archetypal. Some of them are great fun — especially Tom Plotkin as a warbling rube named Willard (Ren’s momma-loving sidekick), and Catherine Cox as Ethel, Ren’s flustered single mom. There’s also exciting energy and vocals from Stacy Francis, whose Rusty acts as a sounding board for Ariel. A jovial country turn from the warm Robin Baxter rounds out the entertaining local eccentrics.
The strengths of “Footloose” lie in the delightful production numbers and in a savvy design from John Lee Beatty that finds its hook in simple images like lockers and bare light bulbs. Bobbie amply demonstrates his mastery of transitions and the well-paced “Footloose” is in excellent technical shape.
Snow also has some worthwhile new numbers — especially “Learning to Be Silent” and “Can You Find It in Your Heart?”
It’s also likely that many audiences will overlook the contrivances and stereotyping in favor of this show’s celebration of youthful independence.
For better or worse, times have changed since Kenny Loggins penned the title number in the Reagan era — and this show needs to either openly celebrate its retro identity or (preferably) snag a much hipper sensibility.