Young stars shining bright

Footloose - the musical

Stage Experiencecast of footloose

New Alexandra Theatre

****

WHILE year after year Simon Cowell sets out to prove Britain doesn’t have much in the way of talent the Alex proves year after year that the Midlands is awash with it.

Since 2003 the theatre’s Stage Experience has taken in a horde of young theatrical hopefuls each summer to create a minor miracle at the Alex; 12 days of blood, sweat and tears later a show of professional standard emerges.

Fifteen year-old Matthew Russell with a performance that belies is age as Ren

And this year really is a triumph. A professional production of Footloose passed through not too long ago, and trust me, this show beats it hands down. It is that good, packed with talent, life and infectious enthusiasm.

This is a show based on the real life story of Bible Belt Elmore City (pop 697) in Oklahoma where dancing was banned for almost a century until it was lifted after a heated polarised battle in 1980 after a request by High School students, all 11 of them, who wanted a school dance.

Dress the tale up, add some drama and conflict, include established rock singles and a smattering of teen angst and rebellion, and there you have Footloose the 1984 teen movie, followed, inevitably these days, by a 1999 stage musical version.

Star of the show is Ren, a Chicago teenager whose father has walked out, who moves with his mother Ethel to live with her sister in the backwater’s backwater of Bomont, where dancing has been banned for five years since four youngsters died driving home from . . . you got it, a dance.

Matthew Russell, from Leicestershire, did an excellent job as young Ren. He can sing, he can dance, he can act and he looks the part. In truth he could do with a bit more wellie in his voice, but, hey, the lad is only 15, that’s right, 15, so his voice has plenty of time to develop.

Voice is no problem though for mom Ethel, played by Molly Hope Williams, aged 17, a pupil at King Edward VI College in Stourbridge. Her ambition is a singing career and with a voice like hers, why not? Despite an age difference of two years, she gives such a convincing performance you could easily believe she was Ren’s mum.

Teen love interest comes with Ariel, daughter of the fanatical Preacher man, the Rev Shaw Moore. Georgia Anderson, aged 18, gives us a pretty, headstrong, daughter struggling to understand a strict father who has changed since the fateful accident that hangs over everyone in the town. She has just ended two years performing arts training at Warwickshire College and it shows with a very assured performance and a good voice – her Holding Out for a Hero is a real show stopper.

Vocal honours though must go to Mark Shaun Walsh from Northfield in Birmingham who has just graduated from Aberystwyth in drama and theatre studies. He can act, has tremendous stage presence and has a clear, powerful, trained baritone where every word is clear as a bell. Tall, dark and handsome, with a strong voice is not a bad tart to a CV.

The script doesn’t do a lot to make the good Rev any more than two-dimensional but Walsh still manages to give his character body and shades of emotion, which is no mean feat. You even feel for him by the end.

The Rev’s wife Vi, played by Aneira Evans, chuckwho trained in musical theatre at Birmingham Ormiston Academy (BOA) is an excellent foil, sensible mum to his firebrand preacher. Like Ethel, it would be easy to believe she was a woman twice her real age with a confident, assured performance and she is another with a voice to die for.

Humour comes in the form of Willard Hewitt, a slow-witted farm boy with a short fuse and a fierce loyalty to his mother. He is splendidly played by Callum Connolly,  aged 18, and another graduate of BOA; his admission he can’t dance and his attempts to learn are so believable the audience cheer when he gets it right.

Drew Rafton as Chuck, the bad-boy leader of the pack and resident town delinquent

And in an off relationship with him, as in waiting for the off, we have Rusty, the fastest talking girl Willard, or indeed anyone in Bomont, has ever heard.

She his played with style and a great voice by the fast talking Nicole Appleby, aged 18, who has just completed a performing arts course at Wolverhampton College. She can really belt out a song and her Let’s Hear it for the Boy is another highpoint.

There is good support from the likes of Drew Rafton as town bad boy Chuck, , all quiff, attitude and leather jacket; Layleigh Johnson as owner of The Burger Blast where Ren works after school; and the town worthies, all under the thumb of the good, or in this case, bad rev. There is Richard Batham as Coach Henry Dunbar, Emma Cartwright as his wife Eleanor and Thomas Stringer as high school principal Harry Clarke.

Full marks to the ensemble members as well who all played their part in songs and dance numbers including a clever chorus section filling all four aisles in Somebody's Eyes.

Director and choreographer Pollyann Tanner, should be used to the pressure by now after 11 shows at the Alex, but it is still a remarkable achievement to produce a show of such quality in such a short space of time and with such a large cast.

At times the whole 120 are on stage at once and even then still manage to look like the cast of a musical rather than a football crowd. The show is slick and fast paced and credit must also go to Musical Director Chris Newton and his assistant Colin King for making every song not only sound good but as if it was meant.

Sadly though, sound is where the show had its issues. Miking up a cast of 120 and having a mixing desk, and technicians to cope with that number of feeds is not really practical which meant sound could be a bit patchy with some groups and individuals without mics struggling to be heard while the otherwise excellent eight piece band, conducted by Newton, did drown out parts of some numbers, which was a pity.

But, to be positive about an irritation, it would give the ten youngsters forming the technical crew, under the supervision of the Alex’s stage technicians, valuable insight into the problems faced by big productions in the professional theatre – and more importantly, one would hope, how to solve them. Blame the audience. They mess up even the best of settings from a sound check.

Luck plays as big a part as talent, bigger sometimes looking at some headliners, in carving out a career on the stage, but this is a production that shows there are plenty of youngsters who are ready wth all the attributes to succeed if lady luck should call.

Forget this is amateur, forget it is a youth production, all you need to know is that this is first class musical theatre and that is always worth seeing. To 23-08-14,

Roger Clarke

21-08-14

And foot-tapping along at the back . . .

**** 

WHAT a triumph this lively musical is for an enthusiastic cast of over 120 youngsters, some of whom have never appeared on stage before.

Mainly teenagers, they give a remarkable performance in a show based on the true story of an American Bible-belt town that banned dancing following a tragic car accident.

Just how hard they had worked to reach this standard is obvious, and some are clearly heading for showbiz careers, just as others have since the Stage Experience concept began at Swindon in 1993.

Hundreds have taken part since the project was also taken on board at the New Alexandra Theatre eleven years ago, and director-choreographer Pollyann Tanner deserves great credit for drilling the youngsters to such an impressive standard.

University graduate Mark Shaun Walsh gives a stunning performance as the Rev Shaw Moore whose son was one of four children killed in the accident while returning from a night out, prompting him to lead the campaign to outlaw dancing.

I have not seen this role played better, even in professional productions, and 18-year-old Georgia Anderson sings and acts superbly as the preacher’s rebellious daughter, Ariel.Her singing of the hit, Holding Out for a Hero, is one of the highlights.

Outstanding performances, too, from Matthew Russell (Ren McCormack), bubbly Nicole Appleby (Rusty), Callum Connolly (Willard Hewitt), Molly Hope Williams (Ethel McCormack) and Aneira Evans (Vi Moore).

Footloose, produced by Andrew Lister with Chris Newton’s musical direction, runs to 23.08.14 

Paul Marston

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