Is nothing sacred? The resume for Derek Hough, who takes the Kevin Bacon role in this stage version of “Footloose,” says he played Choo Choo in the workshop of “Top Cat — The Musical.” For those not in the know, “Chooch” was the wisecracker in the white polo-neck sweater in the great Hanna-Barbera series: Think “Sgt. Bilko” with felines. Should that ever make it to production, “Footloose” will serve as useful apprenticeship because it has all the dramatic subtlety of a cartoon. And not one shred of Hanna-Barbera’s wit.
Karen Bruce’s cheap-looking, relentlessly cheerful production has been touring successfully across the U.K. on and off for a couple of years. But plonked down in the West End it faces stiff competition — and that’s before the slew of heavy hitters arrive. Yet already it courts unwelcome comparisons.
When our young heroes Ren and Ariel (where did writer Dean Pitchford get these names?) rush beneath a railway bridge to scream out their frustrations, you can’t help but spot that the moment is lifted from the movie “Cabaret.” It’s a dangerous reference to make unless you’re about to inherit the mantle of Fosse; sad to say, Bruce is not.
“Cabaret” isn’t playing in London — although a revival is in the planning stages — yet umpteen elements of the show are being handled elsewhere in the West End. The joy, pain and uplift of adolescence scorches its way through Twyla Tharp’s “Movin’ Out.” Stephen Mear’s high school hoedown in “Sinatra at the Palladium” trounces everything “Footloose” has to offer. Bible-bashing, lurid sunsets and boundless horizon backdrops are all the rage in “Whistle Down the Wind.” Hell, you want a powerhouse tale of illegal dancing and religious repression? Try “The Crucible.”
Of course, what none of those shows have is a beloved, boffo movie title with which to grab ticketbuyers. Back in 1984 no one cared that the picture wasn’t exactly “West Side Story,” because it had Bacon strutting his stuff, not to mention a supporting cast including John Lithgow and Dianne Wiest. All of them were authentically American. Here, when Ren observes, “Chicago seems a million miles away,” you have to agree, since the accents seem mysteriously to be from the Southern U.S.
The older members of the cast deliver perfs so wooden they could consider careers in carpentry. The younger cast, meanwhile, go for broke, belting out numbers, dance routines and ALL OF THEIR LINES. The biggest lie of the night is when someone admits to mixed feelings. If only.
Hough is a champion dancer and Bruce lets him let rip, but aside from showing off his gymnastic abilities and shaggy boy-band haircut (which obscures his face most of the time), she doesn’t know what to do with him. That’s the trouble with most of her staging: terrific, well-drilled energy that goes nowhere. Teen auds may applaud the leaping athleticism, but experienced musicals watchers will feel shortchanged by numbers that, despite the unstoppable cast, merely continue rather than building. Only the megamix finale has a properly effective button. Other numbers just stop.
Take one of the movie’s trademark songs, “Holding Out for a Hero.” The set-up where the girls clamber up on top of the bar is awkward. Bruce then brings out a Village People assembly of hunks. The guys regroup for some safe bump ‘n’ grind, then leave. In the last bars, everyone reassembles into the positions they started from, letting the energy drains away.
If the production is effectively marketed to the theatrically inexperienced teen audience that kept the equally vapid but energetic “Fame” running for almost a decade, it may survive. Without that audience, its days may be numbered.