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Footloose (10/22/1998 - 07/02/2000)


 

New York Daily News: "Footloose Lands With a Thud on B'way"

Early in the second act of “Footloose," the main character, Ren, is rehearsing a speech. He is, as anyone who has seen the original 1984 Kevin Bacon movie already knows, a street-smart Chicago kid who has moved to the dull, fictional Midwestern town of Bomont where dancing is banned.

Ren's speech is aimed at getting the town council to repeal the ban. His friends listen and then give their verdict:

"We're not trying to say that the speech is bad. It's just that it's no good."

It takes a crazy kind of courage to retain a line that so aptly sums up the show. For if "Footloose" was an argument against a ban on singing and dancing, the Broadway musical would go the way of the sex shops in Times Square.

It is not hard to understand why someone would want to make a musical of "Footloose." It was a huge hit. And, though hardly a work of genius, it tells a story that continues to resonate.

At the heart of "Footloose" there is an authentic American myth. It is the promise of a peace treaty that will end the culture wars between conservatives and liberals.

What gives the movie its appeal is that its central characters represent large forces. Ren is the big city, pop culture, liberal attitudes. His opponent, the Rev. Shaw Moore, is small-town America, the Christian Coalition, conservatism. In 1990s terms, Ren is Bill Clinton and Moore is Kenneth Starr. The attraction of the story is that it holds out the prospect that these divisions can be healed and that America can live happily ever after.

But Dean Pitchford and Walter Bobbie's adaptation of Pitchford's original movie script never really brings this story to life onstage. Instead of reworking the movie's central myth in theatrical terms, it merely presents a safer and blander version of the screen original.

There are lots of dramatic weaknesses, but two of them are crucial. One is that there is no real sense of danger and consequently no real tension. The movie worked partly because Kevin Bacon's Ren had a genuinely tough time in Bomont.

Here, though, the violence directed against Jeremy Kushnier's Ren is purely notional. He's beaten up one night, but we find him next morning in the school gym performing athletic feats with no apparent problem.

The other major weakness in the storytelling is the key moment when Rev. Moore sees the error of his ways and changes his mind. Stephen Lee Anderson has to act this out through one of the weakest musical numbers in the show. The result, not surprisingly, has all the emotional depth of a telephone sales call.

The show doesn't make up for these dramatic weaknesses in other areas. The young leads Kushnier as Ren and Jennifer Laura Thompson as the reverend's daughter move and sing well, but neither has the kind of charisma that a big Broadway show demands.

The best singer onstage, the marvelous Dee Hoty, is in the relatively minor role of the reverend's wife. The choreography suffers from a similar structural problem. Because dancing is banned in Bomont, the choreography can't take off on until well into the second act.

Apart from two numbers "Somebody's Eyes" and "Learning to Be Silent" the new songs have little impact, leaving the score dependent on all-too-familiar sounds from the original movie soundtrack.

It all ends up as more ham than Bacon, a "Footloose" sadly free of engaging fantasy.


New York Daily News
10/23/1998

New York Post: "Footloose Pulls Up Lame"

Will they never learn?

It is far more difficult to make a stage musical out of a movie musical than might appear at first sight. Just look at the track record. Not a happy one - unless you're dealing with animated cartoons.

Of course, that is possibly what the creators and perpetrators of Footloose - the more or less new musical that turned up, fancy hogtied rather than fancy free, at the Richard Rodgers Theater last night - did think they were dealing with. Certainly that appears to have been the approach they employed.

The original 1984 Herbert Ross movie - starring Kevin Bacon as a city kid transplanted to a hick town where, after a local highway disaster kills four teen-agers, dancing is forbidden by the town council - was, in fairness, more of a movie with music than a movie musical. That hasn't overmuch helped. And the new Broadway version seems a good few more than seven degrees from Kevin Bacon.

Actually, despite its obviousness, it's not a bad story for Broadway. There are real characters here - or could be: the father-bereft boy and his single-parent mother; the rigidly puritanical minister who has lost his son in the town tragedy; his wife and his rebellious daughter.

Unfortunately, the music trivializes rather than enhances them, and the musical itself - including the book adapted from Dean Pitchford's screenplay by Pitchford and the show's director, Walter Bobbie - together with the whole production, which has been polished to a fare-thee-well, seems too much of a shiny mechanism to have any real heart.

Then consider the Tom Snow music and the Pitchford lyrics, Pitchford being one of those wonderful people who gave us the score for the legendary 1988 Broadway flop Carrie - a flop in which, incidentally, I and I think I almost alone found dramatic merit.

These Footloose songs add little to the story, although some of those lifted from the bunch Pitchford wrote for the movie, with a number of pop composers such as Kenny Loggins, in their day proved solid platinum-plus hit singles. So perhaps they have a nostalgia factor working for them. Yet the only item now to have the real feel of Broadway showbiz to it both in creation and staging is a comedy number, Mama Says.

The rest, which range in style from candy rock to sugar rap, taking in a little Motown and Broadway torch ballad on the side, sound old-fashioned and village square, as if someone had tried to come up with a soft-rock version of Lilac Time.

The lines - even the laugh lines - are corny. Was he serious? As serious as a heart attack is just one example. It must be so cool to walk down a street and get mugged by people you don't even know is another. The rest are no better. William Shakespeare or Peter Stone it isn't.

Bobbie, who seemingly was inspired by the successful go-for-broke style of Des McAnuff's The Who's Tommy, has tried to make this an all-moving, all-dance spectacular, full of buzzing lights and bouncing bodies.

He is assisted by Ken Billington's flashy lighting and John Lee Beatty's fluent scenery, but let down badly by A.C. Ciulla's feebly derivative choreography, rushing blindly from a kind of generic-Gennaro jazz-dance to low-rent acrobatics, anemic break-dancing and even a '40s-style jitterbug.

Interestingly, the biggest applause the dancing elicited when I saw it came with an indifferently executed classic pirouette a la seconde immediately followed by a cartwheel. Gosh!

The performances are pretty good - why shouldn't they be? Broadway performances usually are. But newcomer Jeremy Kushnier, trying to bring home the Bacon, as it were, did really well. This was a high-octane performance lacking only the spark of a show.

Of the rest, I very much enjoyed Tom Plotkin and Stacy Francis as the comic second-banana duo; felt slightly less for the rebellious heroine Jennifer Laura Thompson; and felt enormously sorry for the hopelessly underused Dee Hoty and Catherine Cox (two ladies who deserve far better of Broadway than this). And while Stephen Lee Anderson was OK as the stern minister, I did find myself wondering how wise the production had been to lose Martin Vidnovic on the road.

And that's it. The audience I saw it with appeared to enjoy it more than I did, which was not all that difficult. Nevertheless, I suspect that Footloose is now pretty much dependent on the very considerable marketing skills of its producers - who, after all, did steer Titanic into port. Bon voyage!


New York Post
10/23/1998

New York Times: "A Little Town Goes a Little Footloose"

That poor, tormented Reverend Moore. All that worry for so little reason, all that anguish over something so tame.

In ''Footloose,'' the flavorless marshmallow of a musical that opened last night at the Richard Rodgers Theater, this righteous minister of a small-town church spends most of the show fretting over the dangerous consequences of rock-and-roll, something he describes as ''an endless chant of pornography.''

Yet if only, early on, he could have shared the audience's perspective on the way his town's teen-agers dance to such music. Why, it's less erotic, and considerably less involving, than an introductory aerobics class. Of course, if the Reverend had realized this in the production's first scene instead of its last, then there wouldn't be a show. That is not necessarily a bad thing.

There have certainly been worse musicals on Broadway than ''Footloose,'' the $6.5 million adaptation of the hit 1984 movie that starred Kevin Bacon. Yet it's hard to think of one so totally unaffecting. The music in the show is loud, for sure, with a propulsive beat designed to set toes tapping and fingers snapping. The score is peppered with flashy dance tunes from the movie that have boomed over disco floors for years. And there's a young, eager, hard-working cast of dancers, somersaulting, back-flipping, wriggling to beat the band. But as directed by Walter Bobbie and choreographed by A. C. Ciulla, this production has a blurry, removed feeling, like a Xerox of a Polaroid. The show's creators seem to be aiming at teen-agers whose parents won't let them see the raunchier ''Rent,'' with a generation-crossing family entertainment that absolutely no one could object to.

Any grit and spunk that belonged to ''Footloose,'' the movie, which was silly but kind of satisfying, has been bleached and sanitized out of existence. When a character sings about letting ''my mind take a small walk,'' when small-town life becomes too oppressive to bear, it's the only moment in the show when you fully identify with someone onstage.

You have to question the wisdom of adapting a film whose charm was largely realized in the editing room. Directed by Herbert Ross, the original ''Footloose'' arrived in the wake of the hugely successful ''Flashdance'' and made similar use of the kinetic crosscutting and camera work popularized by MTV. What most people still remember about the movie is its opening sequence, a series of close-ups of restless dancing feet that matched the percolating rhythms of Kenny Loggins's title song and was guaranteed to give anyone watching it a case of the St. Vitus twitches.

In theory, live dancers should be just as (if not more) able to convey an infectious exuberance. But that never, ever happens here, despite the gymnastic agility of the cast. Mr. Ciulla's choreography is, while buzzing with busyness, peculiarly uncentered; it doesn't tell you what to focus on.

It says everything about the show that in a number that is ostensibly about an awkward youth learning to dance (the rousing ''Let's Hear It for the Boy,'' a high point in the movie), we aren't allowed to see his evolution from klutziness to high-kicking assurance. The metamorphosis of this cartoon rube (played by Tom Plotkin) occurs mostly behind a curtain of other performers.

The movie was also lively looking enough to keep you from thinking about its treacly formula plot. It's the story of young Ren McCormack (Jeremy Kushnier in the role played on screen by Mr. Bacon), who arrives in a heartland high school from Chicago and teaches a strait-laced town that young folks have just gotta dance.

Ren's strongest opposition comes from the Rev. Shaw Moore (Stephen Lee Anderson), whose son was killed in a car accident after a party and who has since convinced the town council to make dancing illegal. Unfortunately, the Reverend also has a wild, dance-prone daughter, Ariel (Jennifer Laura Thompson), with eyes for Ren, and a wife, Vi (the ever-professional Dee Hoty), who has had about enough of her husband's sanctimoniousness.

Dean Pitchford, who wrote the screenplay for ''Footloose'' as well as most of its songs' lyrics, is also the book author, with Mr. Bobbie, and lyricist for the stage version. (Tom Snow wrote most of the music, though there are numbers from the film by Mr. Loggins, Eric Carmen, Sammy Hagar and Jim Steinman.) The new script scales up the movie's most feeble aspect: its tale of reconciliation and domestic healing among people who have known loss and whose spoken and sung confrontations here take on the aspect of a particularly teary segment of ''Oprah.''

The characters have been built up but in the wrong ways, with the emphasis on insights out of pop psychology books and very little of the detail that defines personality. As played by Mr. Bacon and Lori Singer in the movie, Ren and Ariel projected a sullen, smoldering quality; you could imagine their exploding in dangerous ways. The film in which they appeared might have been on the square side, but its young stars were undeniably cool.

This is not an adjective that fits their successors. The lean, rubber-jointed Mr. Kushnier is a likable presence and a limber dancer, but a brooding James Dean type he is not. His Ren registers as a genial, smart-aleck chorus boy who is a little too jittery (his character-defining solo is called ''I Can't Stand Still'') and could probably benefit from the occasional Valium. Ms. Thompson is a pretty, matronly young woman with nothing of the hellcat about her. It is worth noting that Ariel's most brazen bad-girl activities in the movie, like sleeping around and playing dangerous daredevil games with cars, have been eliminated.

The many new songs Mr. Snow has composed range from the vaguely pleasant (a Sondheimesque duet about ''learning to be silent'' sung by Ms. Hoty and Catherine Cox as Ren's mother) to the unbearable (a long soul-searching soliloquy performed by the mild-mannered Mr. Anderson).

Ms. Hoty and Ms. Cox come the closest to seeming like real people, and Stacy Francis, as Ariel's best friend, has a powerhouse voice, though it is hardly used to best advantage. For a musical that aspires to be a series of crowd-stirring show stoppers, ''Footloose'' has a perverse tendency to muffle the endings of its songs, as though it weren't really expecting much applause.

John Lee Beatty's sets feature assorted generic moving scenery against sunny backdrops with crayon-line streaks of yellows and blues, as though the world being summoned came out of a coloring book. This isn't inappropriate. The most impressive scenic effect involves a giant bridge over a river (prettily set off by the lighting designer Ken Billington's evocation of flowing water and starlight) that has little reason to be. Mostly, you keep wondering where that seven-figure budget was sunk.

At the beginning of the second act of ''Footloose,'' Ren takes Ariel and some pals to a honky-tonk in a neighboring town. ''Isn't this worth fighting for?'' he asks, pointing to the dance floor. Yet what he is indicating is a group of couples in cowboy outfits doing a simple ballroom step with bovine serenity. If this is all the wide world has to offer, Reverend Moore should have no difficulty keeping his congregation down on the farm.


New York Times
10/23/1998

Variety: "Footloose"

It's hard to figure out which of the fierce combatants in the musical "Footloose" is most harmless. Is it the supposedly repressive preacher, who quotes Walt Whitman in his sermons and spends more time conscientiously searching his own soul than worrying about his parishioners'? Is it his daughter's biker boyfriend, who looks like he just popped out of the chorus of a road company of "Grease"? Or is it the new kid in town, deemed a grave danger to community morals, who's clearly about as menacing as a Mouseketeer?

Brightly colored, energetic and very, very nice, "Footloose" is a musical so relentlessly innocuous it makes "Grease" look hard-hitting. This well-scrubbed, well-oiled production may thrive as a palatable second choice for families locked out of "The Lion King," but as one of only a small batch of new musicals set for Broadway this season, it's a dispiritingly bland and juvenile spectacle.

Adapted -- or rather reduced -- from Dean Pitchford's far more textured 1984 screenplay by Pitchford and director Walter Bobbie, the book is so thin you could floss your teeth with it, and has been firmly stamped with a G rating. Jeremy Kushnier plays the Kevin Bacon role of Ren McCormack, a Chicago boy forced to move to the sticks with his mother when his parents break up. He catches the eye of the stern preacher's free-spirited daughter Ariel (Jennifer Laura Thompson), irks her tough-guy boyfriend, and sets town tongues wagging when he challenges a law forbidding dancing within city limits.

Years ago, it's revealed, four kids skidded off the town bridge after an evening of terpsichorean revelry that might also have included substance abuse, and Ariel's dad, the Rev. Shaw Moore (Stephen Lee Anderson), whose son was in the car, led a fatwa against funk that's been in place ever since.

The program says the show is set "somewhere in the heartland of America in the recent past." If only! Here in Bomont, high school kids still hang out at a burger joint straight out of "Happy Days," and racial relations are such that the goofy white boy with a redneck strut is happily paired with a black girl in baggy hip-hop jeans, and nary an eyebrow is raised. When Ariel's boyfriend is described as a "drug-dealer-slash-delinquent," it's jarring; how would he find customers among this soporific town's sunny denizens? (Perhaps he's dealing Prozac.)

It's a sweet fantasy, but it makes a hash of the show's central conflict, which isn't of momentous proportions to begin with. It's hard to believe that a town where the volatile issue of race relations has been so easily settled would be up in arms at the arrival of Kushnier's perky and ingratiating Ren.

While Bacon had a slightly suave and seedy look that he would later exploit in more evil film roles, Kushnier is all smiles. Ren's much-talked-of rebelliousness seems to stop at wearing shiny black leather: When the more hot-blooded Ariel catches him alone, leans toward him and suggestively asks "Do you wanna kiss me?," he chastely replies, "Someday."

His nemesis, the reverend, is also far less weighty than John Lithgow's film rendition. The role has been recast since the Washington tryout, but Anderson, fine singer and actor though he is, can't make much of a character who isn't allowed convictions consistent enough to risk alienating the audience for more than a few seconds. His instant turnabout on the pivotal question of dancing happens somewhere between bars 15 and 16 of his big solo in the second act -- blink and you'll miss it. (Actually, blink and you'll miss the second act; the show rushes to a conclusion -- "I should be helping you find the joy in your lives!" the enlightened minister tells his youthful flock -- coming in at just over two hours.)

In between the little morsels of plot are stuffed some high-energy production numbers set to songs from the movie's soundtrack. A.C. Ciulla's choreography (reportedly enhanced by Jeff Calhoun) is big on gymnastic effects, and takes firm advantage of the show's youthful cast. The peppy pop-rock hits that are presumably one of its selling points -- the title tune, "Holding Out for a Hero," "Let's Hear It for the Boy" -- become splashy extravaganzas that will delight all who remember the originals fondly, and are performed with winning enthusiasm by the kids.

Lyricist Pitchford and composer Tom Snow have also provided some more traditional (if generic) musical theater numbers, including a standout Sondheim-esque duet for Dee Hoty and Catherine Cox, the former miscast and the latter sadly underused as the respective mothers of Ariel and Ren. Cox brings a tinge of reality to this theme-park world in her few moments onstage.

The other performer who manages to break through the show's chirpy gloss is Tom Plotkin, who plays Ren's sidekick Willard Hewitt with just the right amount of tongue-in-cheek glee. In his solo number, a comic tribute to homespun maternal wisdom called "Mama Says," his ripe twang adds its own wit to Pitchford's lyrics, and he dances with a comic flair as well, a distinctive talent.

Although his abilities as a book writer are questionable, Bobbie's staging is sleek and speedy, and well suited to the economical but flashy sets of John Lee Beatty. Ken Billington's lighting creates some pretty effects, particularly in the Ren-Ariel romance scene, when the inventive way he approximates light dappling on a river is more engaging than their love song.

Technical polish notwithstanding, this juvenile creation is delinquent in too many more important elements to impress as a stage musical. But as a product aimed at a mass family audience and supported by Dodger Endemol's aggressive and savvy marketing, it may still succeed, on Broadway and the road.


Variety
10/23/1998

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