August 6, 2013

Starlight wears its game face in an OK production of ‘Footloose’

Kansas City’s outdoor theater serves up another musical based on a 1980s movie. Should we move on to the ’90s? Anyway, this version ‘Footloose’ was produced by Starlight and boasts brand-new sets and a big cast that includes an interesting mix of New Yorkers, Kansas City-based actors and a gigantic “Blue Star All-Star Ensemble” of kids from area high schools.

Please, in the name of humanity, spare us anymore musicals based on movies — especially movies that weren’t very good to begin with.

One of the virtues of a schlocky movie is that it rarely runs more than 90 minutes. A Broadway musical, on the other hand, has to be padded, inflated and elongated to justify an intermission and to make room for extra songs and “character development.”

Which brings us to “Footloose,” now on stage at Starlight Theatre. Herbert Ross’ 1984 movie made a mint despite a shellacking from most critics, so it’s easy to imagine the people behind this 1998 stage version hoping to catch lightning in a bottle a second time.

This version of the show was produced by Starlight and boasts brand-new sets and a big cast that includes an interesting mix of New Yorkers, Kansas City-based actors and a gigantic Blue Star All-Star Ensemble of kids from area high schools. Michelle Lynch’s choreography is inventive and athletic and some exceptional dancers have been incorporated into this cast.

One of them is Max Clayton, who plays Ren McCormack, the Chicago teen who moves with his mother to the small town of Bomont, which is about as repressive as a theological regime in the Middle East. Clayton turns in a good-natured performance, although he’s a tough sell as a high-schooler.

Ren just loves to dance — it seems to be a compulsion with him — but he discovers that dancing has been banned in Bomont because of a car accident in which four local teens died coming home from a dance.

In the distorted logic of the town elders, dancing (with its attendant evils of sexual friskiness and adult beverages) equals death. This brings to mind H.L. Mencken’s description of puritanism: “The haunting fear that someone, somewhere is having a good time.”

The Rev. Shaw Moore (George Dvorsky) rules the town like a protestant ayatollah and becomes concerned when his free-spirited daughter Ariel (Taylor Louderman) takes an interest in Ren. Initially Ariel is dating an abusive high-school dropout, a grease monkey named Chuck (Eric Carsia), so why Ren wouldn’t be seen as a major upgrade is a mystery.

One of the reasons this show feels too long is the amount of time devoted to the Moore’s inner struggle. Should he soldier on as a judgmental prig or become a decent human being? Who cares? His conversion from rigid authoritarianism to benign acceptance is a foregone conclusion, but the writers insist on making us sit through a couple of dreary musical monologues.

The music is a hodgepodge of material composed by Tom Snow specifically for the stage show and tunes from the movie by Kenny Loggins, Sammy Hagar and others. The show opens and closes with big, brash versions of “Footloose.” Courtney Stokes, offering one of the best supporting performances as Rusty, delivers a memorable “Let’s Hear it for the Boy.” One of the liveliest numbers is “Mama Says (You Can’t Back Down),” performed infectiously by Matthew Dorsey Moore, who’s fun to watch as Willard.

Louderman offers an effective performance as Ariel. Ashley Pankow makes an impression as Lulu, Ren’s aunt. Karen Culliver as Vi Moore and Paula Leggett Chase as Ren’s mom turn in workmanlike performances. The KC actors — Charles Fugate as the unpleasant high school principal, Ken Remmert as the abrasive coach, Melinda MacDonald as the coach’s wife, Tim Scott as Ren’s uncle and Licia Watson as a waitress on skates — perform like the pros they are.

John-Michael Zuerlein, another locally based performer, has fun as Cowboy Bob, a singer in a honky-tonk. You might expect a nightclub with line dancing and musicians decked out like midnight cowboys to feature something resembling country music. But that doesn’t happen in the alternative universe of “Footloose.” Best not to wonder why. This show has to be accepted on face value, for good or ill.

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