BWW Reviews: Belmont University Musical Theatre's FOOTLOOSE is Exuberant and Exhilarating

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BWW Reviews: Belmont University Musical Theatre's FOOTLOOSE is Exuberant and Exhilarating

There seems to be something rather ironic-perhaps even subversive-that Belmont University Musical Theatre would mount a revival of Footloose, the Broadway musical (based on the film of the same name) that focuses on rebellious teens in a conservative town battling to overturn a ban on public dancing. That Belmont was long associated with the Tennessee Baptist Convention gives a bit more relevance to the musical in the 21st Century; after all, we Southern Baptists reportedly once frowned upon dancing (and I say "we" because I was brought up in the Baptist church at a time during which we didn't talk about silly things like politics or dancing, instead focusing on our eternal salvation and helping those less fortunate).

Coming from that heritage, therefore, the energetic and exuberant Footloose becomes all the more exciting, resonating far more deeply for these students who grew up in a world completely different-both in tone and in expression-than the one captured by the musical's period flavor and time setting. Directed with sharp focus by David Shamburger and featuring the expert musical direction of Jo Lynn Burks and the terrific, dance club-infused choreography of Emily Tello Speck, BUMT's Footloose seems far removed from the silly musical theater oddity that debuted on Broadway in 1998, another example of producers seeking to capitalize on a film's success by transferring it to the stage.

In fact, if I had a dollar for every time I've told someone that Footloose the Musical is a "stupid show that never should have been brought to the stage" (I'd also put Rodgers and Hammerstein's State Fair in that category),  I'd be retiring to the continent in fairly short order. I've always found the plot ridiculously thin, the characters one-dimensional and the dialogue groanable.

So why the devil did I enjoy Footloose from Belmont University Musical Theatre so much? I'll tell you (surely you didn't expect this to be a quick read)…

First, Shamburger's direction moves the action of the play along at a good pace so that even a surprise fire alarm in the middle of act one cannot derail the progress of the story. Coupled with Burks' musical direction and the performance of the score (credited to Tom Snow, with lyrics by Dean Pitchford, with additional songs from the film by Eric Carmen, Sammy Hagar, Kennly Loggins and Jim Steinman interpolated into the show) by conductor Jeff Burnham and his superb orchestra, and Tello Speck's fancy footwork (which helps the show open like the festive explosion of a confetti cannon via the show's title tune), Shamburger has crafted a production that you can't help but feel swept up by.

Secondly, the production's technical aspects (save for a few sound issues) are consistently well-done and stylishly conceived: Lynda Cameron Bayer's costumes are the ideal evocations of what passed for the current fashion in the 1980s; Thom Roberts' lighting design helps to set the mood and capture the spirit of the show and its times perfectly; and the relatively understated scenic design by John Shamburger and David Shamburger serves the show quite well and with imagination.

Thirdly, and perhaps most significantly, BUMT students are amazingly talented, completely focused on the task at hand and resolutely professional in their delivery of whatever material they are handed (even in the face of that ill-timed fire alarm which they handled with aplomb and finesse). They are seriously talented and serious about what they are doing on stage, but never for a moment do you ever suspect they aren't having the time of their lives (sorry, Dirty Dancing fans, for mixing my musical metaphors after a fashion), infusing the whole production with a sense of urgency, verve and unfettered joy.

In short, thanks to these ridiculously talented people, my attitude about Footloose may have been irrevocably changed. And, as much as I hate to admit it, there were moments of exhilaration and one particular scene that moved me so, emotionally speaking, that I'm almost ashamed to admit it (but more about that later).

The opening night cast was led by Alex Rader in the role of Ren McCormack, the newcomer from Chicago, who sparks the kids in smalltown Bomont to challenge the town elders. Originally played by Kevin Bacon on film, the role of Ren is perfectly matched to Rader's talents and he makes the most of his time onstage with strong vocals and impressive interactions with his co-stars, particularly the lovely Mary-Claire Lutz as Ariel, the headstrong preacher's kid to whom he is instantly attracted. (The other cast features Tucker Hammock as Ren, Caroline Simpson as Ariel.)

There's a palpable chemistry between Rader and Lutz and their performance of "Almost Paradise" late in Act Two is one of the show's musical highlights. Lutz has stage presence to spare-a key attribute for her winning portrayal of Ariel-and she possesses an uncanny ability to be outspoken and almost rude on one hand, heartbreakingly genuine and sweet on the other. Her performance of "Holding Out for a Hero" is as good as it gets.

Perhaps the most startling performance, however, is delivered by young Jefferson Carson as the almighty Rev. Shaw Moore. Tall and good-looking  (I have often said that Carson has the look, presence and undefinable "It" of a musical theater star-as a college sophomore), with a set of pipes that will pin your ears back, Carson shows off his estimable acting chops in his portrayal of the strident, overbearing preacher, investing in him a great deal of heart. His scene with Rader that comes near the end of Act Two-which prompts the preacher to reverse an earlier decision-is heartfelt and stunningly emotional without being at all heavy-handed or histrionic. Rather, the two actors play a scene that pays off at the end with an emotional impact that is unexpected-and yes, those were tears in my eyes…at Footloose! Poke fun at me, deride me, call me a sentimental hack, but my hat's off to Carson and Rader for their work in that scene. Henceforth, I will wear a scarlet F (for Footloose, of course) on my chest.

As strong as the leading players' performances are, they may actually pale in comparison to some of the supporting players' extraordinary turns: Katelyn Fiorini is wonderful as Wendy Jo (her delivery of one line, in particular, had me howling in the audience); Lauren Wright is impressive as Urleen; Matthew Rosenbaum (playing high school dropout/drug dealer Chuck Cranston) proves once again he may, indeed, be Belmont University's most versatile actor; Kevin Mead is believable as Coach Dunbar; Kirsten Schulenburg and Megan Pattison both show how a young actress can play a much older role with genuine inflection and range; and Nick Hurm is well-cast as Jeter and Cowboy Bob.

But, virtually stealing the show right out from under everyone else onstage in Footloose, are the future Tony Award-winners (write it down now) Katie Ladner and Ryan Brennan. Ladner's Rusty is wonderfully drawn: She's funny and acerbic and completely and totally at ease in her every moment onstage. And when she sings "Let's Hear It For the Boy"-well, take it from me, you'll want her to go back to the beginning and sing it again. She plays well against Brennan as the clumsy, slightly dimwitted Willard. Brennan pulls out all his considerable acting skills in his portrayal of Willard, whom he plays full of good ol' boy charm and wide-eyed wonder. His performance of "Mama Says (You Can't Back Down)," backed by the boys' ensemble, is one of the show's most memorable moments and, quite easily, the number in Footloose that seems most borne of musical theater tradition.

Unfortunately, at press time there is but one more performance of Footloose left (Sunday afternoon, November 18, at 2 p.m. in the Massey Concert Hall on the Belmont campus), so you best hurry if you want to catch it.

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Jeffrey Ellis Jeffrey Ellis is a Nashville-based writer, editor and critic, who's been covering the performing arts in Tennessee for more than 25 years. He is the recipient of the Tennessee Theatre Association's Distinguished Service Award for his coverage of theatre in the Volunteer State and was the founding editor/publisher of Stages, the Tennessee Onstage Monthly. He is a past fellow of the National Critics Institute at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre Center and is the founder/executive producer of The First Night Honors, held during Labor Day Weekend, which honor oustanding theater artists in Tennessee in recognition of their lifetime achievements and includes The First Night Star Awards and the Most Promising Actors. Midwinter's First Night, held the first Sunday in January after New Year's Day, honors outstanding productions and performances throughout the state. Further, Ellis directed the Nashville premiere of La Cage Aux Folles, The Last Night of Ballyhoo and An American Daughter, as well as award-winning productions of Damn Yankees, Company, Gypsy and The Rocky Horror Show, with Ellis honored by The Tennessean as best director of a musical for both Company and Rocky Horror.


 
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