Footloose, one of the great—and few—movie dance musicals, became a Broadway show a few years ago in what seemed like a perfect fit. The story of city boy Ren McCormack, who challenges a repressed rural town that has banned dancing and music—and gets the girl in the process—seemed like a no-brainer, especially given that the Great White Way is littered with film-to-stage adaptations. But the show didn't make much of a mark on Broadway. A variety of explanations—a crowded season, fan loyalty to the original movie—are plausible. But one fundamental question remained: How do you cast a group of professional performers to play a bunch of amateur dancers?
St. Jean's Players has found an answer by featuring a roster of well-honed if not professionally seasoned talents in its cast. While Footloose is the first show for many of these cast members, they demonstrate a wealth of talent that should add many a future show to their résumés. This should come as no surprise to anyone who saw the company's wonderful production of Annie this past fall, and director Paul Kowalewski's Footloose is right on par with that show.
Based on events in 1978 in a small Oklahoma town, where dancing had been prohibited for nearly 90 years until a group of high school teens questioned the ban, Footloose has a little more gravitas than its initial premise might suggest. The fictional town of Bomont, located somewhere in the Midwest, has banned music and dancing because several years earlier four teenagers, while driving home from a dance and possibly intoxicated, died when their car went off a bridge. One of them was the son of a minister, Shaw Moore (Shannon Bain), who immediately called for the outlawing of any recreational activities that might again end in tragedy.
Bomont has lived in a state of repression ever since, until the arrival of Ren (Eric Noone), who has left Chicago with his mother Ethel (an underused Debbie Nicklaus, especially with her beautiful alto) after his father abandons them. Why did he leave? That's one of several questions never answered in the show, but the movie never addressed them either. Eventually, Ren befriends Willard Hewitt (lovable teddy bear Ryan Cook) and falls for the local rebel, Ariel (Christina Smith), who is, of course, the daughter of the Rev. Moore.
With his rebelliousness, Ren makes a name for himself in Bomont, not only with his classmates but also among the pious town elders, particularly when he decides the town should hold a dance. As Ren ingratiates himself, he also meets Ariel's friends, who act as both a girl group and a Greek chorus commenting on the action—Rusty (Giselle D'Souza), Urleen (Becky Titleman), and Wendy Jo (Liz Marion).
Noone is nothing short of spectacular as Ren—fleet of foot and good-looking to boot. Do not be surprised if he becomes a major star on stage or screen in no time. He shares a real chemistry with Smith, whose pretty countenance is matched with an even prettier voice. Both are dynamic presences who command every second of their time onstage. In addition to fitting well with each other and their co-stars, they pull off the tougher trick of successfully playing high school students. Their duet of "Almost Paradise" is a highlight of the show. But Kowaleski doesn't let the spotlight shine on just his leads; D'Souza proves her chops in "Let's Hear It for the Boy," and Cook does a standout job on "Mama Says," one of the songs written for the Broadway version.
Bain is a marvel, intense and sensitive, and his scenes with his onstage wife Vi (Sharon Lowe) are among the most moving. I wanted them to have more than one song together, besides another original written for the stage, "Can You Find It in Your Heart?" The Rev. Moore is a tough role to play as written. He is an antagonist, but Bain always shows a layer of hurt, loss, and doubt beneath the character's obstinacy.
I'd be hard-pressed not to mention one final element: Kelsey Gerlach's choreography. Fluid, fun, and at times even balletic, her dancing allows for many impressive moments from the universally great ensemble, while always remaining youthful and energetic. It's no wonder Footloose brought the crowd to its feet. The St. Jean's Players have done it again.