Footloose review
 

 

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Footloose

Coventry Belgrade

*****

To say Footloose became an iconic musical drama film almost as soon as it was released in 1984 would be an understatement.

Directed by Herbert Ross, it starred young twenty-something Kevin Bacon, who had gained his first hit on Broadway two years earlier.

His performance as Ren McCormack, a lad who has moved from downtown big city Chicago to the small fictional township of Bomont (population 19,300) in West Virginia, a place whose moral up-tightness and sniffy judgmentalism makes Prohibition sound like a liberal paradise, or the south and mid-West like a riotous rock-n-roll gig, did as much as anything to put Bacon’s name up in lights and suggest his potential as a major movie actor.

The music was drawn from a number of sources, spanning the 1960s to 1980s, with the hit number Footloose penned by Washington State’s singer-songwriter Kenny Loggins and released in January 1984.

It won the 1985 Grammy Award for best song. Ren’s end of Act One number, ‘I’m Free’, also by Loggins, was released just a month after Footloose premiered. The two rocketed him also to instant stardom.

Those are just a couple of the big numbers in this joyously let-your-hair-down, but also sympathetic story of a gang of youngsters determined to counteract the restrictions of a buttoned-up small town society – led by one of their fathers, the Revd. Shawn Moore (Reuven Gershon, a nice, well-meaning but grittily awful bible-belter rooted in the 19th, if not the 18th century) – and to embrace, indeed proselytise for, the joy of Rock Music and Dance. Waiting for a Girl Like You, Dancing in the Streets, and Holding out for a Hero, sung on the film soundtrack and popularised by Bonnie Tyler, with its assertion of the right to be oneself (compare Glad to be Gay), became an iconic song with the still fledging gay (now LGBT) community.

As so many of these touring Musicals are, this is a high-octane, characterfully choreographed, touching quasi-romance which wins at nearly every turn. One continues to be astounded at the versatility of these (mostly) young performers, who can act, sing, and play instruments in a way that all but outdoes their classical music counterparts. Not just half a dozen of them are guitarists, but others pick up woodwind, including varied saxophones, that would not disgrace Ronnie Scott’s.

The two onstage keyboards are shared around – and one or two of the cast sounded all but virtuosic. And how about Lauren Storer (Cowgirl in the swirling opening to Act Two, plus Swing, and Tenor Sax, Baritone Sax, Keyboard, Flute, Clarinet, Bass guitar, Harmonica: I mean, how does one get to be as gob-smackingly versatile as that?

I have to get it off my chest that some of the fellers were, well, let’s say, not exactly galvanising. Those included Joshua Dowen, a perhaps deliberately rather downplayed (till the later stages) Ren: more antihero: perhaps youngish to emerge from college, and quite good in that guise. ‘I’ve had my fill, I can’t stand still’ introduces the Jack Kerouac, get-moving bit of his growing up. Footloose has something of West Side Story about it, and maybe – it would make sense - these are all meant to be very late teens. In which case, since they didn’t look it, Director Racky Plews needed to impart to these genial twenty somethings (teens themselves not long ago) rather more definition about how to look and behave like a teenager. Alex Marshall’s Wes appeared about 40 (though he made a welcome contribution throughout on guitar). It was Connor Going’s Chuck, the bad boy and what we might now call an ‘abuser’, who made much more impact. However his part is pretty feebly written: there’s just not enough of him.   

When you get to the girls, there’s arguably no comparison. The very first trio number, brilliantly choreographed (several of these numbers ended in memorably designed stage blockings) and shared between Emma Fraser’s wonderful, tubbyish Wendy Jo - a delight every time she moved; Gracie Lai’s delightful, expressive, unbuttoned Urleen (where did that name come from?); and above all, Laura Sillett’s Rusty, who also understudies her best friend Ariel (and she’d carry off that role mighty well), who every time hits the bits Heineken can’t reach.

A gorgeous blonde (am I allowed to say that nowadays?) she’s feisty, punchy, clever, with-it, supportive, and has a voice to match. It’s pure sunlight whenever she’s on stage, and her vocals and acting in Let’s Hear It for the Boy, Somebody’s Eyes and Holding Out for a Hero all had the wow factor. There are nice small-town jests too from the others: ‘It must be so cool to walk down the street (in Chicago) and get mugged by someone you don’t know.’ ‘How do you pronounce ‘Camelot’ – ‘Came a lot’?

Gareth Gates

Gareth Gates who plays the confused Willard

Delicious too was Hannah Price’s Ariel, vocally powerful and affecting as one of three members of the Moore family. It’s her dad, Rev. Shaw Mooren (Reuben Gershon) who sets himself up as a leader of the reactionary brigade in mid-West Bomont (‘Tom Sawyer: now there’s a classic’) - and despite his wife Vi’s interceding (Lindsay Goodhand) seeks to obstruct at every turn his daughter’s attempt to grow to maturity, to be ravished by the dance and - if need be – fly the nest. Ariel’s Act I duet with Ren (and equally the second half’s Almost Paradise) were on the whole kept beautifully soft by Drummer/Music Director David Keech and the Belgrade’s sound control crew.

Gershon has a couple of numbers, and a couple with the ensemble, notably composer Tom Snow’s On Any Sunday – a great early number in which Ren and his mum Ethel join. Shaw has a weaker, seemingly less trained voice (even despite the infernal miking), but it’s a touching, moving one too, and one cannot forget that the loss of his son Bobby - Ariel’s brother – in a probably drunken car tragedy (as Ariel tells us near the end, ‘He was one of the four that went off Battery Bridge’) - has a lot to do with his anger, condemnatory stance and resentment of dance’s freedom. Ariel’s trio with mum Vi and Ren’s mother Ethel (Learning To Be Silent – how nearer to the truth can you get than that?) was one of the best delivered numbers of the evening.        

But Footloose really belong s to just one actor: Gareth Gates, as the friendly, shy, loopy, confused, bumbling – but capable of moments of genius – Willard. This is a character straight out of Tennesee Williams, Miller or Albee. Librettist (and lyricist) Dean Pitchford has penned this part really well, it has depth and poignancy and an unexpected kind of wisdom. It’s as if Gates has turned his well-known stutter, evident at his Pop Idol near-win (season 2001-2), and built a complete character from those embarrassing limitations. He is acutely funny, yet deeply tragic. Utterly loyal, but striving manfully to make a personality for himself, eager for sex but no idea how to find it (unless by himself), getting taken short and rushing off clutching his crutch, and to be a fellow-battler for the freedom Ren and the others are fighting for.

Willard is a scrumptiously entertaining, gorgeously well-performed, beautifully conceived character. His moves alone – wobbling, hesitant, tentative, or alternatively scuttling and hurtling in steps as shy as he is, often enough stiff and invariably awkward – merited an Oscar. On this basis alone, Gates could transfer to the Royal Shakespeare Company tomorrow. Given we know he’s got a gorgeous singing voice (though here that’s not up front), and can act spontaneously and electrifyingly (given his famous Joseph in the Lloyd Webber Dreamcoat), it’s difficult , as so often, to know what exactly we owe to Racky Plews’ direction, on his one-on-one sessions with his actors, and how much is generated, invented, by them themselves.

Hannah as Ariel

Hannah Price as Ariel  

This astonishing, mind-blowingly clever creation looks to have come largely from Gates himself. One thing that impresses, mightily, is how modest an on stage performer he proves. For not a second does he steal, or impinge on, anyone else’s scene, or lines, or vocals. Much of the time he hovers modestly in the background, then out of the blue emerges to do a shaky, then ecstatic solo dance, or a hilarious strip-down to blissfully shabby hot pants (think of Rhys Ifan’s Spike in Notting Hill). Gates is something very special indeed: he digs into his own interior, assimilates it, and comes up with pure gold.

Matt Cole’s choreography – a very few bits more weakly designed or rehearsed, especially an (initially, though not later) frankly shambolic last scene (the ensuing curtain calls were sensational), was on the whole grand for the piece, especially the nice variation in Act I at the reprise of Somebody’s Eyes). The performers clearly give him what he was aiming for, and it seems almost hubristic sheer talent that they can perform and pirouette while playing instruments (the girls’ flute and clarinets, or Goodhand’s saxes) or while rollerblading around their colleagues on stage, neatly avoiding the danger of bumper cars.

Chris Whybrow – a Sound Designer as seasoned as they get – maps out the sonar impact with his usual wisdom and excellence. Designer Sara Perks comes up with many super touches – placards that descend from the ceiling (including the ghastly Burger Blast, where Ren picks up a job), and a chokingly cramped Vicar’s office that – arguably - parallels Moore’s blind, constricted outlook.

There are nice costume games with matching red socks, and so on. Humphrey McDermott’s first-class lighting pays dividends time and again, e.g. three perfect spots on a trio of onstage instrumentalists - .Rusty’s flute, Ethel’s and Urland’s clarinets.  And Mark Crossland’s Music Supervision (Drummer David Keech is the actual tour Musical Director) has clearly impacted to advantage.

It’s worth making a beeline for Footloose for Gareth Gates’s performance alone, though also for Sillett’s, and perhaps Fraser’s too. One groan, a big one. I loathe these posh, highly costly, large format, Musical programmes. They spread the main information throughout, often in an unhelpful order, in order to fit round the ubiquitous glossy photos (nice in themselves). The information about Footloose’s songs/numbers is absolutely tip-top – highly meaningful and well worded. Yet this one, despite the usual song listings – excellent - had no cast list, despite the very helpful cast and creative biographies. They almost never give a synopsis. It makes the actual reviewing of them a misery, but perhaps for audience members they’re an expensive nightmare too. To 17-06-17

Roderic Dunnett

06-17  

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