Ian Gareth Jones
There’s a moment midway through Footloose when, to the strains of Holding Out For A Hero, the stage was filled with male dancers, variously dressed as cowboys, lifeguards, sailors and firemen. The scene was as cheesy as it gets and topped only by The Producers’ Make It Gay in off-the-charts campery, but it worked because this is a show that understands its own naffness and warmly embraces it.
Director and choreographer Karen Bruce has previously worked on both Fame and Saturday Night Fever in the West End, so she understands exactly what her target audience wants and knows how best to give it to them.
In the week when the Dirty Dancing musical made record profits at the box office, despite not opening until the autumn, Bruce’s stage production of the 1984 teen movie was always going to be the underdog show, the appetizer to DD’s main course. And things weren’t helped by the newly refurbished Novello being still somewhat soggy following a flood over Easter weekend. But, to its credit, the production proceeded with admirable energy.
The plot is so thin it’s almost see-through. After his parents’ divorce, city boy Ren has to move to Bible belt bolthole Bomont, a town where dancing is banned after a drunken accident claimed the lives of a carload of the town’s teenagers. But Ren is a kid who “just can’t keep still” and this brings him into conflict with the town’s fun-starved elders, chief among whom is the Reverend Moore. He’s played by junior McGann brother Stephen, appearing slightly lost-looking throughout; perhaps because he was as surprised as us that his onstage wife was Cheryl Baker. (And, yes, there’s a predictable Bucks Fizz reference in the final medley – will this woman still be having her skirt ripped off when she’s eighty?)
The Reverend also happens to be the father of troubled Ariel (played by the perky Lorna Want), the girl who catches Ren’s eye. How to resolve this knotty situation? Throw a party, that’ll sort it. That’s it; but then that’s all a show like this needs in terms of story. Though his singing is sometimes a little muffled, Derek Hough does just fine as Ren, and Giovanni Spano is good fun as his hick mate Willard, a boy who “can’t dance” but after a few minutes of coaching in a Country and Western club is doing the splits.
While Dirty Dancing was a film made in the 1980s but set in the 60s and really about the end of the 50s, Footloose was set in the decade in which it was made, though it still tapped into the same nostalgia bubble. The stage show floats even freer of context – to its detriment; the film had a grounding that Dean Pitchford and Walter Bobbie’s adaptation lacks.
Yet though the temptation to compare is strong, Footloose is not Dirty Dancing and never was; and as a result there are few iconic scenes or lines of dialogue to grapple with. For most people, I’d hazard, the film is just a good reference point when playing Six Degrees Of Kevin Bacon. This does mean however that, because the level of public affection is lower, Footloose has more freedom to do as it pleases (hence the lifeguards and firemen).
This may be musical theatre at its fluffiest, but it’s got an undeniable energy. If you can rise above the corniness of it all then you’ll walk away happy.