Marriott's cheery 'Footloose' an improvement over Broadway

To fully appreciate director David H. Bell's remarkable resuscitative achievement at the Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire, you really had to see the original stage version of "Footloose."

In its original Broadway incarnation, this show was a wretched movie-to-stage mongrel — a dumb and derivative complication of thudding power ballads and disco-era nonsense retrofitted with second-tier performances, limp choreography and a few lame new numbers in an entirely different musical style. When I first saw this thing during its pre-Broadway Washington stand in 1998, it made Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey in "Dirty Dancing" look like principal dancers at the Joffrey Ballet.

But on Wednesday night at the Marriott Theatre, Bell somehow turned this piece of claptrap into an admirable and thoroughly enjoyable family entertainment offering.

Bell did so by dialing down the camp, dialing up the truth and tidying all the unnecessary narrative clutter, clearing the stage for some fabulously ebullient dancing.

And in the lead role of Ren, Bell was smart enough to cast Tyler Hanes, a young kid from Broadway who just got done with Christina Applegate's notorious "Sweet Charity." To call Hanes a triple-threat doesn't even begin to evoke his chops or his charm — this handsome kid can act, sing and turn the teenage girls in the front row to jelly.

Kenny Loggins or Denise Williams fans might recall the stupid story: Transplanted Chicago teen persuades minister in tiny Texan sticksville to overcome his opposition to dancing, while the edgy kid also finds time to woo and reform the pastor's bad-girl daughter (here played by the overwhelmed Megan Reinking, who has the unenviable task of playing opposite the knockout Hanes).

Back in 1998, the show didn't know what time it was in, or what rules it was following from one moment to the next. But thanks to disarmingly simple but smart performances from Michael Gerhart as the hoofin'-hatin' preacher, and the unusually well-cast Susan Moniz as his sympathetic wife, the show's stick authority figures actually gain enough of a modicum of depth that the story seems a little less preposterous.

Expectations need to be in check — this is the endlessly cheery and cheesy "Footloose." And the show starts slowly. Very slowly. But by comparison with some of the heinous recent movie spin-offs and catalog shows, "Footloose" doesn't look so bad anymore.

Faint praise, perhaps. But when produced with this level of wit and flash, this show now has got a lot more spunk — and youth appeal — than "Brigadoon." And by the end of the second act, Bell's direction and exceptionally savvy, family-friendly staging far transcends the material.

The show closes with a "Mamma Mia"-style megamix that had the thoroughly charmed Marriott crowd on its feet. Purists of the form would have been despairing for the future of the American music.

Stuff 'em. This cast and this director deserved every darn cheer.

cjones5@tribune.com

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