Having recently completed a massive refurb' of the Novello Theatre (formerly The Strand) the aptly-named owner, Cameron Mackintosh, must have felt a little washed out on discovering that a leak in an upstairs loo had caused a Noah-sized flood in his lovingly restored playhouse (soon to be renamed Novello's Ark). Apparently, it was only mopped up just in time for the opening night of 'Footloose - The Musical'. In fact where I was sitting, I could still see tell-tale drips of water percolating through the ceiling. But it didn't seem to spoil any hair-dos or dampen the audience's enjoyment of this hugely energetic and exuberant show that pits youthful zest for life - and dancing - against the autocratic Puritanism of the church and a gaggle of mind-numbingly boring adults.
Based on the 1984 film starring Kevin Bacon, the plot is a thinly-veiled piece of schmaltz that by all sane judgements would wind up down the same drain as the water liberally pouring from the Novello washrooms. Yet it manages to keep its head above water because it doesn't really take itself as seriously as it might - though it's played quite 'straight' (and I use that term relatively lightly) and has a kind of 'feel good no matter what' factor that proves irresistible in winning you over, in spite of the grossly sentimental soppiness of the story.
Lithe and irrepressible teen Ren McCormack (played by Derek Hough) and his mother Ethel (Caroline Deverill) have been deserted by Ren's father who's gone off to 'find himself'. So they decide to 'up sticks' and duly sally forth from their Chicago home to reside with relatives in the small town of Bomont, where the staid routines and puritanical ethos provide about as much merriment as watching Cameron Mackintosh’s theatre dry out. In particular, dancing is banished from the school's social agenda because of an accident in which several students were killed after going to a dance and tanking themselves up with generous quantities of booze.
In redneck, bible-bashing territory, Ren finds it hard at first to make friends and becomes the butt of allegations of criminal behaviour and waywardness - though this kid is about as wayward as a hamster on its treadmill. And even a robotic rodent could see where this plot is heading. Of course (and I'm giving nothing away here) boy meets girl, boy overcomes doubting father, authorities relent about the ‘prom’, and there's a swinging, victorious finale dance number in the gym when the school bop is finally held with all the loathsome adults joining in the jollities!
There's certainly enough talent on view here to sustain the action and dish up good value for money. As Ren, Derek Hough is a fine dancer who manages to convince us his joints might actually be made of rubber. And he also demonstrated some arresting tumbling too in one of the reprises at the end. His singing isn’t quite so strong, but when you’re dancing you head off at the same time, it’s little wonder.
Natasha McDonald also shone as the cynical and brash Urleen, delivering a formidable presence on stage with a great soulful voice to boot. And when Giovanni Spano (as Willard) eventually gets a pair of feet pointing in different directions (as required by the plot) he shows us that he’s capable of some solidly impressive dancing too.
Director/ choreographer Karen Bruce has done a splendid job in the dance department with some vibrant and infectious routines. But she’s also managed to inject some ‘knowing’ humour into the whole show, lending it an unpretentious air. In the ‘Holding Out For A Hero’ number for example, she brings on a set of ‘heroes’ who seemed to have more in common with ‘Village People’ than the small town America ‘god-fearing’ variety – very funny as well as unexpected. It’s also to her credit, and that of designer Morgan Large, that they’ve eschewed technology and gone for a simple, yet effective design that provides atmosphere and fluidity between scenes without the fussiness of gadgetry.
Andrew Lloyd Webber could learn a thing or two from this musical. Here, there are 16 or so numbers interspersed with quite sizeable chunks of dialogue, whereas Webber's musicals often have 25+ songs and very little in the way of dialogue - one of the faults I pointed out recently in my review of 'Whistle Down The Wind'. In 'Footloose' there's more than enough music and dance, and the dialogue actually does its job well in developing the storyline, bringing us closer to the characters, and giving us a few minutes of relative calm to change gear.
In spite of the limitations of the story, 'Footloose - The Musical' is certainly no damp squib. With some infectious foot-tapping 80s numbers and a couple of haunting melodies, as well as some fine individual and ensemble dancing, it should have the punters flooding across the (hopefully) un-flooded portals of the Novello for some time to come.
What the popular press had to say.....
FIONA MOUNTFORD for THE EVENING STANDARD says, "The story has two left feet...The non-musical moments contain a lot of badly placed emotional gloop for the leads to negotiate..." BRIAN LOGAN for THE GUARDIAN says, "It's all nonsense, of course, but life-affirming nonsense, which counsels those in search of heaven to leave the Good Book alone, and head for the nearest dancefloor. Amen to that!" DOMINIC CAVENDISH for THE DAILY TELEGRAPH says, " Karen Bruce's production is all revved-up but can't disguise the fact that it has no great journey to take us on...it now just looks hopelessly out of date." SAM MARLOWE for THE TIMES says, "Staging is frenetic but uninspired."