Just when I decided the premise for “Footloose” was too absurd to be believed, I learned that the 1984 film was inspired by a People magazine article about an Oklahoma town: Elmore City, where public dancing was legally prohibited until 1980. A citizen predicted a high school prom would lead to a surge in student pregnancies: “When boys and girls breathe in each other’s ears, that's the next step.”
So maybe the right to dance to rock ‘n’ roll did represent some kind of righteous rebellion during the white-bread Reagan years of the early ’80s.
But by the priapic second term of Bill Clinton, when the stage musical of “Footloose” debuted on Broadway in 1998, we’d gone way past that point. Critics mostly hooted at it, though nostalgic audiences kept it afloat for 709 performances.
When the musical opened Theatre Charlotte’s 87th season Friday, I could see both points of view. The hits from the film still resonate: “Holding Out For a Hero,” the title cut and “Let’s Hear it For the Boy (sung by the joyous Danielle Burke, strongest voice in the cast) have nostalgic appeal.
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On the other hand, the book by Dean Pitchford and Walter Bobbie is a compendium of cliches, Pitchford’s lyrics are platitudes on the same scale, and Tom Snow’s bland original songs run together (except for the touching, Sondheimesque “Learning to be Silent”).
There’s a reason none of these three men ever wrote another successful show: Each character is a stereotype, from the preacher’s alienated wife (well done by Allison Rhinehardt) to his wayward yet loyal daughter, Ariel (Emma VanDeVelde). Even her name is unbelievable: This tradition-bound Christian minister named his daughter for the soulless spirit from “The Tempest”?
Theatre Charlotte’s version emphasizes the characters’ amiable sides and minimizes distressing hints of tension. Ren (Justin Norwood), the Chicago transplant who shocks small-town Bomont by reviving the concept of a prom, has no element of exoticism or edge and seems like every other Bomont boy.
The Rev. Moore (Ryan Deal), a preacher so galvanic he can bend the town council to his will and lift his congregation “so they have to look down to see heaven,” is here a mild lamb of God fitfully troubled by his son’s death. (The boy had been to a dance, gotten drunk and died in a wreck. Ergo, dancing is evil.)
Director Michelle Long and choreographer Lisa Blanton make good use of the tiny stage in ensembles, yet no dancers stand out individually. Surely, in a musical about the transformative power of movement, one terrific dancer – Ren, ideally, but anyone might do – should remind us exactly what Bomont has been missing.