New Wimbledon Theatre
3 May 2016
Perhaps the first great film of the MTV generation, Footloose made an international star out of Kevin Bacon, and its soundtrack of hits became classics. It must seem incomprehensible now, that nobody saw the film as a stage musical. Nobody, that is, until Carole Schwartz (wife of Wicked composer Stephen Schwartz) suggested it made sense and that it might be popular with schools.
The film’s script-writer Dean Pitchford, together with Tom Snow and Walter Bobbie set out to bring Footloose to the stage. The result is quasi-jukebox musical infused with traditional musical elements, that works because so much of the original film score works dramatically.
Based on a true story, Pitchford found the story of the middle-American town that banned dancing whilst scanning the New York Times. Ren and his mother are forced to move to Bomont to live with his uncle. They arrive to find a town that has banned dancing following a car accident that killed four teens. It’s a classic youth against the establishment drama that has been played out many times, and in the case of Footloose was strong enough to allow a recent remake of the film.
Where this production of Footloose becomes interesting, is that it has become the latest touring show that has succumbed to the actor-musician model of producing, where nearly all of it’s onstage actors playing every note of the score live, whilst they perform the show. It doesn’t always work, whilst guys with guitars can be made to work to an extent, you really have to feel sorry for the girls who are playing trumpet, flute and tenor sax.
That said, this is a cast of tremendously talented performers who manage to make it work. Watching some of this cast play multiple instruments can be as entertaining as the drama itself.
At the core of this production of Footloose is Luke Baker as Ren McCormack. Baker sings and dances up a storm and delivers real emotional power in the crucial scene with Reverend Shaw. Baker infuses Ren with the frustration, energy and passion that gives Footloose its centre. He just can’t stand still.
Former boyband singer Lee Brennan makes his musical theatre debut as Willard. Making Willard a little more backward than in previous incarnations of the show, Brennan infuses the character with physicality and a likeability that had the audience onside from the start.
Footloose at its heart is a inter-generational drama that works because it not only has youthful energy but is sympathetic to the adults in the drama. Unlike in Grease, they aren’t sidelined as stereotypes, but are fully formed characters with a point of view and complexity that is central to the conflict. Nigel Lister and Maureen Nolan play Reverend Shaw Moore and his wife Vi Moore. Theirs is a relationship affected by the death of their son, and the ramifications of that event on the relationship with their daughter Ariel (Hannah Moore). Nolan is superb as Vi. This is not a flashy role, but one that requires enormous amounts of emotional truth, which she supplies in spades. Learning To Be Silent and Can You Find It In Your Heart are real stand-out moments.
Making Shaw Moore sing must be one of the more difficult challenges in any production of Footloose. He’s a man conflicted between his love of God and his love for his wife and daughter. He honestly believes he is doing the right thing but loses his way in the process. Lister comes into his own in the second act of Footloose and his pivotal scene with Ren (Baker) in Act Two had real emotional intensity.
You get a real idea of the drama in the original film pop numbers when it comes to a number like Somebody’s Eyes which is perfectly performed by Natasha Brown, Miracle Chance and Joanna Sawyer.
There’s no way to talk about every performance on stage during Footloose, but special mention has to go to Scott Haining and Matthew Tomlinson. Haining seems to be master of every instrument he touches, and dances up a storm. Keep an eye out for some wonderful moments with Haining on cello in Act Two. Tomlinson takes on the role of Chuck Cranston – Bomont’s bad boy. It’s an accomplished performance, but I found it impossible to stop watching as Tomlinson seamlessly worked his way through the production, taking on keyboard and guitar playing as required.
This production of Footloose has been primarily driven by the economics of touring large musicals. Director Racky Plews has for the most part succeeded in her actor-musician take on Footloose. It takes a little while for this production to find its feet in Act One, but soon establishes itself. Sara Perks set design and Humphrey McDermott’s lighting perfectly service the multiple locations in Footloose and provide covert locations where actors can remain on stage to play instruments whilst not part of the immediate action.
Footloose always was a piece that relied on dance and in it’s transition from film to stage it remains the driving force behind the show. In Bomont dancing is banned, and as a result what dancing we see early on from the youth of Bomont is frenetic and forbidden. Choreographer Matthew Cole has given Footloose that energy and made Footloose dance with passion. Given the restrictions of some instruments, that’s no mean feat.
Footloose has a driving beat that’s impossible to resist, and that’s thanks to David Keech who is perched high on stage, bringing the evening together musically whilst also playing the drums. Bringing an actor – musician show together can’t be easy but together with Musical Supervisor Mark Crossland, the musical integrity of Footloose is maintained.
Footloose had all 1600 people at the New Wimbledon Theatre last night on their feet dancing at the end with pure joy! Sitting near me were parents, who as teens had seen the film introducing their kids to Footloose. Surely, that says it all.