Thursday, March 05, 2009

Loosen up with 'Footloose'

M&D Productions’ lively production of the musical version of the 1984 film “Footloose” opened Thursday at the Loynd Auditorium at Kennett High School in North Conway, N.H.

The large cast features actors from both Kennett and Fryeburg Academy as well as performers from the community, under direction from Christy Hikel and musical direction by Tracy Gardner.

Confession: I haven’t seen the “Footloose” film in its entirety. The 1980s dance movies such as “Footloose,” “Flashdance,” “Fame” and “Dirty Dancing” never really appealed to me. So, being upfront with this bias, I can still say I had a decent time with this largely student-based production.

With its premise of a city kid moving to a rural town where dancing is banned, “Footloose” seemed to be a throwback to 1950s rock 'n' roll rebellion films — albeit with contemporary music. The musical is written with nostalgia for the 1980s songs at its center, so essentially the show is a throwback to a throwback.

It has been a popular trend for Broadway to do musical adaptations of films. For every “Lion King,” "The Producers” or “Spamalot” there are head-scratchers like “The Wedding Singer” or “High Fidelity.” “Footloose” makes sense as a film to stage transfer. The film was essentially a musical, except the songs were not sung but used in montages or as background music.

The screenwriter, Dean Pitchford, also wrote or co-wrote nearly every song on the soundtrack including the title track, “Let’s Hear It for the Boy,” “I’m Free,” “Almost Paradise,” “Holding Out for a Hero” and “Somebody’s Eyes.”

All those familiar songs appear in the musical version, as well as new songs that were added to fill out the show. These new songs, also by Pitchford, range from fair to great in at least one case. Of the songs written for the musical “Learning to Be Silent” and “Mama Says” are highlights.

“Learning to Be Silent” is a powerful ballad featuring the two mother characters (Kelly Karuzis and Caryn Robinson) and the female lead, Ariel (Courtney Phelps) singing about how their marriages and relationships have become repressed as things are left unsaid to avoid confrontation. The song is well performed and emotionally resonates.

“Mama Says” is a comedic number about all the things Willard (the Chris Penn character in the film, here played by Jake Dunham) learned from his mother. There are some very funny lyrics here, including: “Mama says don't use a toaster while standing in the shower.” Dunham delivers the song well and gets some of the show's best laughs.

Rafe Matregrano as Ren, the role originated by Kevin Bacon, gets to show vocal range on “I Can’t Stand Still,” which features him doing Michael Jackson-esque falsettos and hitting bluesy lower ranges. He also shines during his duet with Phelps on “Almost Paradise.” Their voices complement each other nicely.

Taylor Hill as Ariel’s best friend and Willard’s maybe girlfriend, Rusty, is a stand out on “Let’s Hear It for the Boy.” She has a strong voice that is also showcased nicely on “Somebody’s Eyes” where some of the town girls warn Ren of the town’s watchful eyes.

Dan Phelps in the John Lithgow role of Reverend Moore gives a strong performance as a man who genuinely thinks he is doing right by his town. Phelps and Matregrano share an affecting scene where they discuss loss and moving on.

Katie Gustafson is worth noting as well. She plays three small roles in the show but as the roller-skating owner of a burger joint she secures the show's biggest laughs and reminds that it isn’t the size of the role, but what you do with it.

“Footloose” is not a perfect show or production, but it is an entertaining one. The actors are good throughout. A lot of the performers are still learning and are rough around the edges, but there is some real talent here and that is always nice to see.

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