Turning the 1984 movie Footloose (and its Top 40 singles) into a Broadway musical gave birth to a kind of theatrical hydra, a many-headed creature that isn't quite sure which direction it should be looking. With high energy and strong performances, Stages St. Louis manages to make the various elements of this combination platter into an appetizing production.
Footloose could more aptly be titled Whose Play Is It Anyway? -- and how you answer that question will most likely depend on your age. Teens and twentysomethings will identify with Ren, a high-school senior forced to move from hip Chicago to backward Bomont, Texas, where he lives the hell of being "the new kid" in a close-knit community. Ben Nordstrom is irresistibly charming as he courts the predictably naughty preacher's daughter and navigates the obstacles in his path: anger at a father who left him, mistreatment by the ogre gym teacher and a beating by the local bad boy. Rising above his pain, Ren emerges as the leader of the students, crying for release from a town ordinance against dancing authored by the Reverend Shaw Moore.
While Ren goes on to win both the legal battle and the girl, parents of any age may find the crises faced by Reverend Moore and his wife the more compelling story. Bill Lynch's nuanced portrayal of Moore begins with him urging each church member to "listen to the music in your soul." The melody of the Moore home, however, is discordant -- the reverend can't communicate with either his teenage daughter Ariel (the beautiful Juliana Ashley Hansen) or his wife, Vi. Kari Ely plays Vi Moore with heartbreaking restraint, finally unleashing her frustration in "Can You Find It in Your Heart?" (which would be even more effective if the scene change behind it weren't so noisy). When Ren pushes Moore to confront painful memories, Lynch takes a complex psychological journey in the gut-wrenching "I Confess." Moving from anger to grief to shame to a renewal of faith, the reverend emerges from his dark night with a new song to sing.
There's also the tale of the sidekicks. Shelley Thomas and Landon Shaw provide welcome comic relief as Rusty and Willard. Their awkward romance kicks into gear when Thomas belts out "Let's Hear It for the Boy," while Willard learns how to dance. Shaw shines with the goofy "Mama Says," featuring sweet a cappella work by Patrick Garrigan, Peter Leskowicz and Vincent C. Rodriguez. In fact, the entire ensemble shines: Stages regulars Michele Burdette Elmore, John Flack, Judi Mann, Michael Jokerst, Steve Isom and Zoe Vonder Haar each create memorable characters, and a host of newer faces add zest to the dazzling dance numbers.
Choreographer Dana Lewis keeps the movement sharp and athletic. Her work is complemented by the dance-club lighting cubes provided by Matthew McCarthy, the versatile scenic design by Mark Halpin and the eye-pleasing variety of Lou Bird's costumes. All of the production elements synthesize in the final number, where Ren's well-fitting tuxedo and Hansen's frothy lime-sherbet dress perfectly highlight their dance moves, while the lighting and set elements build to an appropriately sparkling finale.
The only sour notes are heard when the sound balancing is off. Sometimes solo voices are hard to hear, and complex choral work turns into amplified mush. The time signature of the show also seems muddled. The music and book place us in the '80s, so a character's random comment about watching Desperate Housewives, along with some fairly modern costume choices, are unnecessarily confusing.
Ultimately the most puzzling thing about Footloose is that in spite of its stylistic uncertainty, its often clunky book and hard-to-sing music -- it somehow works. In fact, it's fun! The struggles of parents and their children join with the sheer joy of song and dance to create a magical evening of theater in which forgiveness and love triumph. Who could argue with that?