Arts musical review

Footloose hits the stage at Berklee

The production misses a few steps

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Lana Scott, Sydney Victoria Dorin, Terrell Foster-James, and Kate Elmendorf perform in Berklee Musical Theater Club’s rendition of Footloose.
Josh Glass
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Christian James Potterton starts in Footloose.
Josh Glass

Footloose: The Musical

Berklee’s Musical Theater Club

Berklee Performance Center

Nov. 21–22, 2013

Some films are met with lukewarm welcomes when they hit the screen, only to go on to serve as snapshots of the eras in which they were made. I’ve always considered Footloose (1984) to be one of these ugly ducklings that are met with initial flurries of derision, yet mellow with time and nostalgia into appreciable works. For it in particular, this transformation has largely been possible because of its uniqueness as a film — not because of the acting or directing, but rather because of the music. The plot tells the tale of a dance-happy teenage boy from Chicago by the name of Ren McCormack, who moves to a small, much less excitable town where dancing and rock and roll have been banned under the orders of local minister Rev. Shaw Moore, who is still traumatized by the long past death of his son and three others in an alcohol and party-related car accident. After some clashes with the town’s rather puritanical adults and falling in love with the preacher’s rebellious daughter, Ren manages to convince the minister to allow for prom to be held, albeit outside of town limits. Cue dancing, and credits roll to music from the 1980s.

While it all makes for a touching story, the last part is ultimately what’s important — the soundtrack is of such a caliber that it brings candor, context, and soaring heights to an otherwise sometimes melodramatic screenplay. Featuring artists such as Foreigner, Bonnie Tyler, and Ann Wilson of Heart, it’s a display of raw musical talent and a collection of works by some of the best artists of the decade.

Considering how the music had made the movie, I was eager to see the Berklee Musical Theater Club’s staging of the musical based on the film, held at the Berklee Performance Center on Mass. Ave. I felt that, after all, adding more song and dance to a work where both were already inextricable themes would only mean good news.

That sentiment was quickly proven wrong. As much as the movie has its flaws, it also has its moments. For one, both the Reverend and Ren are portrayed well and in likable manners, the former as a conflicted, soft-spoken, earnest and well-intentioned man with a knack for giving incredibly moving sermons, and the latter as a boy who is struggling to come to terms with his new home, yet who is pleasant, coolly calm, and hesitant to trigger confrontation. In particular, Ren’s demeanor of self-doubt and bemused unfamiliarity with his surroundings, combined with the chance nature of his actions — from first moving to the town to then galvanizing its young — lends credence to the sense that he is an unconscious agent of divine change sent to lead Reverend Moore back from where he has wandered astray. This feeling of a sort of cosmic guiding hand and the drawing of a parallel between Ren and the Reverend, both of whom are normal, humble individuals, anointed with influence and given the reins to events that are larger than them, is what lends the film a bit of a soft, golden touch — a touch that is completely lost in the musical. Forget facets of or soft blurs to the hard edges of characters, and forget the existence of measureable character development — both Ren and the Reverend are rendered as hot-headed, confrontational, and aggressive men more intent on making snide insults than on pushing for what they genuinely believe. Ren especially comes off as cocky and insufferable, requiring the audience to suspend a fair share of disbelief to imagine that a reconcilement between the two could actually occur. And when said reconcilement occurs, it’s inserted with all the grace, subtlety and precursory buildup of a sour note. With the movie, there exists a clear transitional period where the Reverend slowly begins to realize that his policies have been a bit too harsh; this culminates in a scene where he comes across his own flock burning books from the school library, and he, horrified, orders them to return home and introspect. In the musical, the scene is omitted and there is no such crescendo to the abrupt change in the pastor’s mind.

Ren and Reverend Moore are not the only ones to fall victim to such desaturation. Ren’s friend Willard is also made dimensionless, changed from a wingman who is perhaps parochial at times, yet who serves as a guide to the town, to a simple-minded, socially awkward caricature meant only for comic relief. In fact, possibly the only plot-related improvement over the film is an increased emphasis on the female characters, who are given more time and attention to voice their frustrations against the patriarchal leanings of the rural community. Otherwise, the story is flattened to resemble more of a cheap comedy than any sympathetic tale.

Considering the poor nature of the libretto, the performers did a fair job of attempting to breathe life back into its vapid shell. Dancing and choreography were solid, especially with Christian Potterton standing out as a capable Ren, commanding attention with his moves on the stage. The pit, of course, played with the adeptness to be expected of students studying at a school of music. When it came to singing, however, much of it was subpar. In addition, there seemed to be issues with the microphones, which often seemed have trouble picking up actors’ voices. Even forgiving technical transgressions, most vocal aspects were only mediocre. For instance, while Potterton can sing, his voice ultimately lacks the metallic edge and power of the contemporary rock tenor that is the requisite for Ren’s role. Justin Gates’ Reverend Moore was relatively dry and feeble, and proved to be far from what I imagined to be the rich, powerful baritone of a charismatic preacher. What resulted was the anticlimactic presentation of several famous songs — even the signature “Almost Paradise,” an ecstatic duet and slowdance favorite originally sung by Mike Reno of Loverboy and Ann Wilson of Heart, was not spared, and was instead executed in a rushed and blocky manner by Potterton and Jessie Munro, who plays Ariel, Rev. Moore’s daughter.

A couple of voices, however, did stand out, one of which was Saundra Agababyan’s, whose gospel-like rendition of the high notes in “Let’s Hear it for the Boy” as Rusty, one of Ariel’s friends, brought home a bit of the sunlit glory of the original 1980s piece. Another was Nolan Murphy as Willard in “Mama Says (You Can’t Back Down),” which turned out to be hilarious, well sung, and surprisingly good.

With the combination of pleasant parts such as these and its varied shortcomings, the Berklee Musical Theater Club’s staging of Footloose falls, in the end, into the uncanny valley between entertainment and enjoyment. Have a free night with nothing better to do? Head down Mass. Ave towards the theater in Boston. Want to reminisce of the good old days of rock ballads and big hair? Stay home, turn up your Cyndi Lauper, and watch the movie instead.