Pillow Talking's Review of FOOTLOOSE

Pillow Talking
June 28, 2016

She Said:

True story: When Fulton Theatre's Footloose ended, I turned to my husband/co-reviewer with a pout on my face and said, "I don't want it to be over!" That's because in every sense of the word, they nailed it - cast and crew, orchestra and choreography, sets and lighting - they all were magnificent and spot-on! I had high expectations for this production - I always have loved the iconic 1984 film starring Kevin Bacon and Lori Singer (which was followed by a pretty decent remake in 2011 starring Kenny Wormald and Julianne Hough) and while I've never before seen the stage version, I knew its premise couldn't be more ideal for the boards. The dynamic, high-energy musical written in 1998 by Dean Pitchford and Walter Bobbie, with music by Tom Snow and lyrics by Pitchford, tells the age old story of city folk vs. country folk - and how a restless and rebellious teen from Chicago must quell his dancing feet after he and his divorced mother relocate to the small, heartland town of Bomont, where bopping and boogying just aint allowed.

But there's more - a lot more. There are deeper themes, a lot of heart, and moments which will touch you. You'll laugh, you'll cry, you'll hanker for romance, you'll stomp your feet, and most of all, you'll want to get up and dance!

Thanks to brilliant direction by Marc Robin, from the opening scene, the air is electric, the mood is infectious, and there's an energy which continues to flow like the rapids through ‘til the end. When protagonist Ren McCormack first sets foot in Podunk, he's in for a rude awakening - it's a small town filled with even smaller-minded people. There also is nowhere but The Burger Blast, a bowling alley, and the train bridge for teens to hang out and blow off steam. On top of it, he soon learns that there is an actual law which forbids dancing as a result of a tragic accident which took the lives of four local teenagers who were on their way back from a dance.

In a town which is both spiritually and politically led by the loving but sometimes misguided heart of Reverend Shaw Moore, everyone in Bomont pretty much accepts what is - with the bold exception of his impetuous and reckless daughter, Ariel. She wants out of Dodge and she'll stop at nothing until she gets there. Flanked by her friends Rusty, Urleen, and Wendy Jo along with her bad-boy beau Chuck Cranston, she's got Daddy's blood pressure hovering in stroke range for most of the play.

Ren doesn't make a great first impression on anyone but some swooning girls at school, but soon finds a loyal friend in overall-clad Willard Hewitt after a cantankerous first meeting. Soon he turns Ariel's head as well, much to Chuck's (and Daddy's) chagrin. Ultimately Ren, with a lot of charm and influence, is able to persuade all of the boot-clad populace to take a look not only at changing their dancing law, but also at themselves.

What most assuredly makes this production work were the wonderful and memorable performances by the leads. Neil Starkenberg as Ren McCormack and Liz Schmitz as Ariel Moore have incredible stage chemistry and are triple-threats in their own rights as talented actors, singers, and dancers. Unlike the more brooding Kevin Bacon portrayal, Starkenberg's Ren is upbeat and snarky, whereby he succeeded in making the part his own. With Schmitz, we get to see Ariel's many layers - a girl who is smart, wild, funny, yet deeply sad - each and every aspect of the character's personality brought out in Schmitz's genuine portrayal.

Two others whose stars I cannot wait to see continue to rise are Katie Bates and David J. Wiens. Bates is an incredibly vivacious Rusty, Ariel's best friend, the sassy, pony-tail wearing dynamo who steals scenes and songs without even trying. As her love interest, Willard, bumbles around her, we are rooting for them from the word "go." And Willard... where should I start about young Wiens? He's going places! Wiens' Willard was terrifically funny and engaging, bringing out both the character's warmth and intelligence (the latter of which was craftily hidden away under his dim-witted, buffoonish demeanor), as well as a lovely innocence and charm. And wait until you see him cut a rug!

Broadway veteran Rita Harvey is Ren's mom, Ethel McCormack, and I will shamelessly say I'm a huge fan. This troupe was so fortunate to have such a personage in their midst. Her lilting, extraordinary soprano voice, paired with the loving, playful relationship she portrays with her son is an important and sustaining element to the story.

James Patterson was a phenomenal Reverend Shaw Moore. This character has the most dramatic, complicated arc in the play - he's at times compassionate and charismatic, at other times stubborn and demanding. We see him fighting his own demons, but with humility in the end. Patterson's portrayal was so authentic, his shining moment in "Heaven Help Me" brings the audience (and me) to tears. The Reverend's wife, Vi Moore, played by Melissa Dye, is excellent as the stoic and passionate support to her husband, despite the challenges they face as a couple, a family, and a community. She is his cheerleader but one who also is not afraid to tell him what he needs to hear.

Cory Jeacoma as Chuck Cranston is the antagonistic high school drop-out and bully; no one is immune from his seething ire. Jeacoma portrays his don't-mess-with-me attitude to a "T" and you love to hate him especially when he crosses the line with Ariel. (I was going to say something here about how I could totally see him playing Patrick Swayze's "Johnny" in Dirty Dancing but upon editing my husband's review - I edit everything - I saw that he ripped off my idea, so I won't. Or did I just do it? FYI, I'd whispered the Dirty Dancing thought to him during the performance which is something I never do because he loves to steal my lines. Hi, Wayne!)

Shea Renee as Urleen and Michaela Bolt as Wendy Jo were the perfect complement to the third member of the triumvirate, Rusty, all serving as Ariel's posse. Erin Wright as Lulu Warnicker and Myles McHale as Wes Warnicker were terrific as Ethel's sister and brother-in-law. Mark Epperson played a great Coach Dunbar and Courtney Arango was great as Eleanore Dunbar. Buddy Reeder was well cast as Principal Clark. Footloose's exuberance was in great part due to the strength of its entire cast. Of course there are no small roles. Kudos also to Donovan Hoffer as Lyle/Cop, Chris Stevens as Travis/Cowboy Bob, Asher Dubin as Jeter, Zach Porter as Bickle, Tommy Betz as Garvin, Erin McNerney as Betty Blast; and the fabulous ensemble includes: Joshua Bellamy, Sarah Crane, Nolan Davidson, Lauren Elledge, Will Esposito, Clare Fitzgerald, Benjamin Hergenroeder, Austin Nedrow, Rachael Opdenaker, Teagan Smith, Michael Styer, and Victoria Tallarico.

I cannot complete this review without highlighting the spectacular musical numbers, all of which were so well done in both orchestration, song, and choreography - I especially loved Vi, Ethel, and Ariel in the affecting "Learning to Be Silent"; Ariel, Rusty, Wendy Jo, and Urleen in the sidesplittingly funny "Holding Out for a Hero!" - which was punctuated by Batman, Superman, a gladiator, and a Fabio wannabe. Rusty (and Company) rocked out "Let's Hear It for the Boy" in the biggest, baddest way possible - I was grinning from ear-to-ear. Ren and Ariel professed their love to one another in "Almost Paradise" and did so beautifully. And of course it was the Footloose (Finale) that had me not wanting to leave the theatre!

And I also have to say that the sets and staging were beyond compare - with elements that compete with those seen on Broadway stages, an incredible job by all in creating the many scenes from a Chicago dance hall to The Burger Blast to The Moore House, the high school and more. The movable set pieces glided on and off so seamlessly as the characters nimbly stepped, danced, and shuffled around them.

As always shout-outs to the many important people who make a production like this a success: Aaron McAllister as musical director; William Mohney as scenic designer; Dan Efros as lighting designer; Anthony Lascoskie Jr. as costume, hair, and makeup designer; Jacob Mishler as sound designer; Matthew Moran as associate sound designer; Katelin Walsko as properties manager; Samantha Hewes-Cramer as choreographer; Douglas Lamb as assistant stage manager; and Timothy Markus as production stage manager. And special mentions to the orchestra and the rest of the crew.

It is obvious that the staff and the board of the historic landmark, the Fulton Theatre, and the Fulton Opera House Foundation work hard in their mission to bring exceptional theatre to the Lancaster community and beyond. The stunning venue is a gem in the middle of the lovely and bustling city of Lancaster and is surrounded by exceptional businesses, wonderful restaurants, and in the larger radius, the beauty of the Pennsylvania Dutch Country and the charming traditions of the Amish community. It is well worth a visit to take in a show, a meal, and the sights!

So "Kick off the Sunday shoes" - or rather, keep them on (or some kind of footwear) and head on down to Lancaster before Footloose dances away! You'll be so glad you did!

He Said:

And Mama says it doesn't matter / If you're a king or you're a clown / Once you drive up a mountain / You can't back down - From Footloose the Musical

Who would have thunk it? (as the character Willard might remark in Footloose) that 165 miles from the Great White Way is another Great White Way in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Nestled amid farms with rows of cornfields, silos and Amish country is the town of Lancaster. One of the main drags in the town is North Prince Street, host to eclectic shops like vintage record and book stores, restaurants of all types, and one of the oldest theatres in the country - The Fulton Opera House. Who would have thunk that Broadway-comparable entertainment is alive and well in the heart of Pennsylvania Dutch Country?

But it is. And Footloose: The Musical proves it. The Fulton Theatre's production of Footloose (its season's grand finale) is superb. It is a wonderful mix of the best musical ingredients including a knee-slapping, foot-stomping, hand-clapping score. But it also is more than that. The director, Marc Robin, has gone deeper than the relatively superficial musical version that premiered on Broadway in 1998. Indeed, Mr. Robin was able to extract the deeper thematic issues that lie at the play's core beneath the iconic songs - loss, regret, forgiveness, resurrection. His direction was not only masterful, but insightful as well.

Ren McCormick, a teenager from Chicago, moves with his single mom, Ethel, to hopefully find a better life in a rural farming town. Ren, a somewhat rebellious teenager who resents authority, uses dance as a cathartic means of dealing with his father's abandonment. He is shocked to find that the town, politically controlled by the Reverend, has outlawed any kind of dancing in the town limits. To complicate matters, he has fallen for the Reverend's wild daughter. He must fight prejudice, pre-conceived notions about him and his mother, and somehow win over the trust of the Reverend in order to change the town's edicts and get the girl.

The cast is wonderful. Neil Starkenberg, who plays Ren, is definitely a rising star and one to watch. He sings, dances, and acts his heart out (he also has hair like Kevin Bacon who starred in the 1984 film version). Veteran Broadway songstress and actress, Rita Harvey, plays his single mother to perfection. James Patterson as Reverend Shaw Moore had some mighty big shoes to fill as the great John Lithgow played the character in the film. James fills them nicely, making the part of stern, flawed Reverend his own. The confrontation between him and Neil in Act 2 brought tears to my eyes. And speaking of big shoes to fill (or heels in this case) Liz Schmitz as Ariel Moore, the Reverend's wild daughter, quickly makes you forget Lori Singer's take on the character in the film version. Another rising star for sure, she had great chemistry with all the men on stage with her: Neil as Ren, James as her father and Cory Jeacoma as Chuck Cranston, her boyfriend as the play opens. Cory, by the way, had great charisma and a commanding stage presence. Liveried in black and singing and dancing to numbers like "The Girl Gets Around," conjured images of Patrick Swayze from Dirty Dancing. Another veteran Broadway songstress and actress, Melissa Dye as Vi Moore, the Reverend's wife, brought just the right amount of compassion and understanding to the role.

There were so many scene stealers in this production that if this were a baseball game, it would have the record for stolen bases by an actor. Since I love alliteration, I will dub the character of Williard Hewitt as Willard the Wonderful and David J. Weins who played him was... well... wonderful. He was engaging, charming and just downright likeable. His comedic timing was impeccable - especially when he displayed his butt-slapping backwards choreography (you'll just have to see it). Pigtailed with a voice just slightly east of Fran Drescher, Katie Bates stole many a scene and heart with her performance as Willard's girlfriend Rusty. Indeed, she made Sarah Jessica Parker's performance in the film a dim memory.

With a large cast and ensemble, it is virtually impossible to single out everyone. Suffice it to say that the ensemble was excellent. Nods also must go to Shea Renne as Urleen, Michaela Bolt as Wendy Jo, Buddy Reeder as Principal Clark, Mark Epperson as Coach Dunbar, Courtney Arango as Eleanor Dunbar, Myles McHale as Wes Warnicker, Erin Wright as Lulu Warnicker, Tommy Betz as Garvin, Zach Porter as Bickle, Asher Dubin as Jeter, Chris Stevens as Travis, and Donovan Hoffer as Lyle.

My bad at times for not giving enough of a nod to the people who are behind the music sequences. I will correct that flaw right now by giving props to Music Director Aaron McAllister, Choreographer Samantha Hewes-Cramer, and the Orchestra. They did the iconic songs and dance sequences proud. "Learning to be Silent," by Ariel (Schmitz), Vi (Dye), and Ethel (Harvey) was incredibly touching. "Almost Paradise" by Ren (Starkenberg) and Ariel (Schmitz) gave me goose bumps as did the "Footloose Finale," by the entire company. "Holding Out for a Hero," which paid homage to a number of well-known superheroes, was MasterCard priceless. No anti-heine itch cream needed at any point.

When a play is based on an iconic film like Footloose, which is so entrenched in our collective consciousness, it takes a real vision and artfulness to create a production that can stand on its own, free of overshadowing comparisons from the past. Director Marc Robin and the Fulton Theatre did just that. So get yourself to Lancaster by sea, air, or land because their production of Footloose should not be missed!