BWW Reviews: FLASHDANCE -- THE MUSICAL Has Plenty to Enjoy, but Something is Missing
In 1983, before there were flash mobs or flash drives, there was FLASHDANCE, featuring Jennifer Beals, not to be confused with Jennifer Grey, who starred with the late Patrick Swayze five years later in DIRTY DANCING. FLASHDANCE, whose title number, "Flashdance ... What a Feeling," won an Oscar for best song, told the story of Alexandra (Alex) Owens, a Pittsburgh steel worker who dreams of chucking her gritty, tough life to pursue a careet in ballet. She seems to have the talent, but what about the nerve? The original FLASHDANCE, despite giving us "What a Feeling" and "Maniac," and incorporating the 1982 Laura Branigan hit "Gloria," was a story with dancing and music - not a musical. And Jennifer Beals had lots of help with her gravity-defying moves in the person of uncredited dance double Marine Jahan.
A generation after the iconic motion picture, FLASHDANCE - THE MUSICAL is touring the country prior to a hoped-for landing on Broadway. FLASHDANCE - THE MUSICAL features a book by Tom Hedley (co-writer of the original screenplay) and Robert Cary, with direction and choreography by Sergio Trujillo (JERSEY BOYS, MEMPHIS). The score retains the biggest hit songs from the movie, including "Flashdance - What a Feeling," "Maniac," "Gloria," "Manhunt," and "I Love Rock & Roll." In addition, Robbie Roth (music and lyrics) and Cary (lyrics) have written sixteen new songs for the stage production.
FLASHDANCE - THE MUSICAL opened at the Kennedy Center this week. Originally advertised for the Opera House, the production is actually playing in the Eisenhower Theater. Fortunately, the show does not seem to suffer from the change - the imaginative sets by Klara Zieglerova (scenic design), with liberal use of
projections (designed by Peter Nigrini), accommodate themselves to the smaller venue. The sets seem designed to project a feeling of claustrophia that demonstrates the characters' sense of being hemmed in by their humdrum lives in Pittsburgh. This effect may not have worked as successfully in the more expansive Opera House.
Visually, the production is stunning. Sparks fly (literally) in the opening scene in the steel mill as the welders engage in their work. The lighting (by Howell Binkley) and the dance costumes (designed by Paul Tazewell) - not to mention the water scene, lifted from the motion picture - provide welcome relief from the depressing story about people without opportunity trapped in what was then a dying city.
Jillian Mueller has the rock voice, the dance moves, and the charisma to pull off the role of Alex. She is backed by an able supporting cast, with one exception: Corey Mach, who plays Nick (the young member of the mill's founding family who falls for Alex), strains to hit his notes. His voice timbre seems better suited to a more traditional musical role, such as Raoul in THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA or Marius in LES MISERABLES. Mach plays Nick as a vanilla blob with so little going for him that it is hard to imagine a happily-ever-after with a strong woman such as Alex.
The story itself, although engaging, has a significant number of holes, including leaving unanswered the question whether Nick develops the backbone to refuse to fire a group of workers because he honestly believes that letting them go is wrong or because he wants to impress Alex. The "Justice" number, a colloquy between the rich scion of the company owners and the threatened workers, could have been a show-stopper, but instead comes across as too cute and forced.
Also, Alex's lack of connections to obtain an audition at the haughty ballet school whose director looks down her upper class nose at a welder rings hollow in light of Alex's close relationship with Hannah, her dance teacher. And why is one of the characters performing an exotic dance while Nick is knocking on Alex's door? The dance going on simultaneously would make sense only if Nick were waiting for Alex in the bar, instead of meeting her at home.
With the claustrophobic, dingy factory and bar settings where Alex works evenings as an exotic dancer and the projections that give the feel of a depressed city, FLASHDANCE-THE MUSICAL demonstrates a sense of place, but fails to present the cultural sensibilities of the era in which it takes place. Other than the music and Alex's long moptop (more suited to Christine Daae than a welder in a steel mill) and the absence of cell phones, there is nothing in this production to show that the action occurs in the 1980's instead of now. The characters wear today's mini-skirts with granny-style boots. The projection of the Empire State Building to represent New York is anachronistic and euphemistic - once the World Trade Center opened, the Empire State Building lost its status as the symbol of New York City until after the horrifying events of 9-11. The script misses an opportunity to show Alex, a pioneer in a macho job, earning the respect of her fellow workers, perhaps by out-hustling them or by standing up to a union-buster. Instead, the writers portray the men as adoring her from the start - unlikely in that time period, when a working blue collar woman was still often seen as stealing a job from a man.
But the most important failing in terms of capturing the flavor of the era is ignoring the pervasive influence of the me-first culture. The 80's was the era of Gordon "Greed is Good" Gekko and politicians railing against "welfare queens" and so-called "punitive taxes." Corporate takeovers and consolidation ran rampant. Nick should have been a new manager representing a conglomerate that bought a family business and is seeking to pay the purchase price by eliminating "waste," while busting the union in the process, instead of part of a family-owned business downsizing for unspecified reasons.
As Nick debates with his conscience about whether to stay with the company, portraits of unnamed men (yes, they are all men) who are presumably family company leaders flash on the wall. The eighties could have been summed up best by adding one more portrait atop all the others: The official presidential photo of Ronald Reagan, who so dominated the political landscape that no discussion of the decade can be complete without him.
Those who see this production will probably enjoy it. The first act drags in spots, but the second zips along without any time for boredom. The music and the dancing and the visuals create a "wow" factor, but something is missing. FLASHDANCE - THE MUSICAL is good theater, but, with a more solid story and a better sense of era, it could could have been great.
FLASHDANCE -- THE MUSICAL is appearing at the Kennedy Center, in Washington, DC, through January 19, 2014. Ticket prices range from $45-$150. The Web site for the Kennedy Center is www.kennedy-center.org . The site for FLASHDANCE -- THE MUSICAL is http://www.flashdancethemusical.com/ . Other BWW reviews about the touring production of FLASHDANCE -- THE MUSICAL are available at /national-tours/article/BWW-Reviews-Grab-your-Legwarmers-FLASHDANCE-Is-a-Great-80s-Throwback-20131218 ; /connecticut/article/BWW-Reviews-FLASHDANCE-THE-MUSICAL-is-a-Splashy-Flashy-Rehash-at-The-Bushnell-20131016 ; /chicago/article/BWW-Reviews-Touring-FLASHDANCE-Nearly-Makes-a-Splash-20130808 ; /national-tours/article/BWW-Reviews-FLASHDANCE-Makes-Cincinnati-a-Maniac-20131105 ; and /tampa/article/BWW-Reviews-FLASHDANCE-THE-MUSICAL-Wow-What-a-Feeling-20130220 .
Photos by Jeremy Daniel