Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Two Degrees of Kevin Bacon

Live Arts, Charlottesville's best-known, semiprofessional, community theatre, has announced its 2009-10 season, which includes Glengarry Glen Ross and Gypsy (which will be directed by John Gibson, who is retiring as Live Arts' artistic director next January).

The season will be preceded by a summer musical, Footloose, which promises plenty of opportunities for aspiring young performers from the Charlottesville area to sing and dance.

I reviewed Footloose in its pre-Broadway run at the Kennedy Center in September 1998. While I never did see the show after it reached the Big Stem, I understand that there were some changes made that might have caused me to write a less negative review. (I don't often pan a new musical, but I did in this case.) Testing a show out of town is meant to get rid of some of the kinks and to respond to the criticisms of reviewers and audiences.

It turned out that Footloose received four Tony Award nominations: for actress in a musical, book of a musical, choreographer, and original musical score. Four nominations, but no wins. Still, despite mixed reviews, the show had a respectable run on Broadway of just under two years and 709 performances. It also provided the Broadway debuts of 16 of its 34 cast members, which might be some kind of record.

Here is my review, as it appeared in The Metro Herald more than ten years ago:

Footloose: All Sizzle and No Steak
Rick Sincere
Metro Herald Entertainment Editor

The choreography is excellent. The dancing is better. The sets are eye-catching. The songs are infectious. The costumes are colorful. So what makes Footloose, with its expectations of being a firecracker, such a dud?

The new musical at the Kennedy Center, based on the 1984 film of the same name and headed to a Broadway opening next month, simply does not live up to its promise. Despite individual aspects that are admirable, Footloose ends up being much less than the sum of its parts. It is flashy but ultimately empty. It is, to steal a phrase from advertising, all sizzle and no steak.

Footloose, the movie, produced a raft of hit songs, including the title number, "Almost Paradise," and "Let's Hear It for the Boy," which garnered an Academy Award nomination for composer Tom Snow and lyricist/librettist Dean Pitchford. It made Kevin Bacon a star. Its story about a small town in the Bible Belt where dancing is forbidden has become well-known.

Footloose, the play, fails on several levels, both in conception and execution.

One conceptual problem is present in both the movie and the play. The fundamental plot device is logically, if not dramatically, flawed. In both versions, newcomer Ren McCormack (Jeremy Kushnier), is told that the town of Bomont's ban on dancing was legislated after a car accident took the lives of four teenagers, at least one of whom was drinking, when they were driving home from a dance in neighboring Baylor County.

If the fatal dance was in Baylor County, why ban dancing in Bomont? It would make more sense either to prohibit dancing in Baylor County (an unlikely prospect for Bomont citizens) or to make sure that Bomont teenagers who want to dance and have a good time are able to stay close to home, supervised by caring adult chaperons, so that they will avoid the dangers of driving under the influence. This dancing ban makes as much sense as contemporary "zero tolerance" policies for alcohol use by the under-21 set, which is more likely to drive drinking underground (far from the moderating influence of adults) than to teach young people how to drink responsibly. (This may be a topic for another day.)

Moreover, the creative team -- Tony-winning director Walter Bobbie, whose smash hit Chicago revival played the National Theatre in Washington last year, songwriters Snow and Pitchford, and choreographer A.C. Ciulla -- seems to have been unable to make up its collective mind about Footloose's time-frame. Is it set in the ‘80s, like the movie? Most of the costumes suggest that. Or is it set in the ‘90s, today? At least one reference to the Internet indicates that. But perhaps it is set in the ‘70s? The formalwear in the final scene could be straight out of the new Fox TV comedy, "That '70s Show," and some of the stage sets could be straight out of a revival of Grease (which was, after all, a ‘70s phenomenon, despite its nostalgia for the 1950s). So there is this confusion.

Then there is the execution.

First, the plot and characters. For a show about dancing, with considerable "bells and whistles," as well as a score that's 50 percent rock-and-roll, Footloose lacks energy. There is nothing that drives it forward. Because the ending is predictable, the conflict that is meant to carry us along seems empty. The characters, as a consequence, seem shallow, two-dimensional. It is hard for us to care about them. Footloose is uncompelling.

Second, the songs: In addition to the songs from Footloose, the movie, Snow and Pitchford have produced nine new songs for this stage production. The movie songs are all written as Top 40 hits to be used as background music in a film soundtrack -- not that there's anything wrong with that. (As some have noted, Top 40 provides us, certainly in our teen years if not beyond, with the "soundtrack of our lives.") Yet in this context -- with the exception of "Almost Paradise," which fits well here -- the film's songs seem imposed from above on a structure that cannot support them. As a result, they feel uncomfortably disengaged from everything around them -- including the audience.

The nine new songs, however, are more "musical theatre" numbers. They fit snugly into their context and breathe life into the characters who sing them. They advance the plot and help the audience to understand what is going on. Especially good are "Learning to Be Silent," a duet for Vi Moore, the preacher's wife (Dee Hoty) and Ethel McCormack, Ren's mother (Catherine Cox), and "Can You Find It in Your Heart?," a solo number for Vi later reprised by her husband, the Reverend Shaw Moore (Martin Vidnovic). On the other hand, Ren's big number, "Dancing Is Not a Crime," his address to the town council pleading for the repeal of the dance ban -- what is it? Is it a patter song? Is it rap, is it hip-hop? Whatever it is, it doesn't work.

Despite this wealth of material -- unevenly distributed, to be sure -- the creative team seems to lack confidence in their product. One sign of this: The biggest hit from the movie, "Let's Hear It for the Boy" (ably sung by Stacy Francis, as Rusty, and the company), was greeted by applause from the audience within the first two measures of music -- a surefire crowd pleaser. One would anticipate a pre-written encore for this number. No such luck. Two scenes later, however, an amusing but unexceptional novelty number, "Mama Says" (sung by Tom Plotkin as Willard Hewitt, Ren, and three boys from the chorus), was given an encore, despite tepid applause after the first go-around. Go figure.

The biggest problem with the music, however, might simply be in its delivery. Songs sung by more than one person, especially full-company numbers, are almost incomprehensible. The sound was always muddy. This could be the fault of the sound designer, Tony Meola. Or it could be blamed on the vocal arrangements by Doug Katsaros.

More likely, the fault lies with electronic amplification itself. Electronic amplification -- especially the ubiquitous body microphones -- is the musical theatre equivalent of the aluminum baseball bat. It encourages laziness on the part of the performer, who should be using his or her full vocal faculties -- mouth, larynx, head, lungs, and body -- to project to the back of the house. To do otherwise actually damages the performer's voice. The size of the auditorium, even in a large space like the Kennedy Center Opera House, should be no excuse for over-reliance on electronic amplification devices. At best, microphones and speakers should be used as a minor enhancement for the sound from the stage, not as a substitute for vocal projection.

The contrast between the older and younger performers in this production is telling. Martin Vidnovic, who had his Broadway debut in 1976 in another failed musical, Home Sweet Homer, Dee Hoty, and Catherine Cox -- the principal adults in Footloose -- come through loud and clear. They know how to enunciate and how to project their voices properly. Their voices carry naturally through the auditorium so that electronic amplification supplements their natural talent rather than overpowers it. On the other hand, the younger cast members, including some of the principals, come across like a tea party of James Dean and Marlon Brando wannabes -- rhubarbing, mumbling, and swallowing their words.

What's the difference? Hoty, like Vidnovic and Cox (who played opposite each other as expectant parents in Baby, a short-lived 1983 musical whose cast album is now a cult favorite), grew up in the theatre in a pre-electronic era. The younger singers have grown to rely on microphones as a crutch. It shows.

Footloose is scheduled to open on Broadway in October, with a national tour planned for January 1999. If they want to draw audiences large enough to carry out their plans, the producers had better arrange multiple spots to plug the play on the "Rosie O'Donnell Show" and the "Late Show with David Letterman." In the meantime, Martin Vidnovic should start softening the blow for his enthusiastic young comrades, most of whom are making their Broadway debuts, by dusting off his anecdotes about working with Yul Brynner during the single Broadway performance of Home Sweet Homer.

Otherwise, the cast and crew should pray for the resurrection of Ed Sullivan, because only raw publicity of that magnitude can rescue Footloose from becoming a Broadway footnote.
Forgive me for liking my own work, but I love that reference to Home Sweet Homer. Like the legendary Moose Murders and the underrated Glory Days, it is notorious for having just one official performance on Broadway. I suspect this blogpost will show up on searches by people intrigued by Broadway trivia or those trying to settle a bar bet.

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