Dance Fever 

Playhouse mounts a crowd-pleasing Footloose.

theater-dancefever.jpg

A friend posted these comforting words on my Facebook page in response to a complaint that Footloose (the musical) at Playhouse on the Square, just isn't my cup of nostalgia: "You should consider yourself lucky — the rights to The Wedding Singer ARE available, after all," he wrote. And oh, how right he was. While original musicals have made a comeback in recent years, the past several theater seasons have been bursting with musicals adapted from movies, television shows, comic strips, and movies that were also television shows and comic strips.

This should result in a grumpy tirade in which I fulminate against a lack of creativity and originality. Only I'm not going there. Nor am I going to complain about crass commercialism. And here's why: There is a long, proud tradition of using films — good, bad, popular — as source material for Broadway musicals. The problem with Footloose isn't that it began life as a mediocre '80s-era teen flick but that it remained mediocre in translation and has lost some of its original charm in the process.

Footloose has an identity problem that it's never able to fully overcome, and Playhouse guest director Shorey Walker hasn't done much to fix things. The show's authors were never quite able to decide whether or not they were crafting a sincere tribute to the original or building a campy tour through Reagan-era America. What's especially frustrating is that this not entirely implausible show about Ren, a city kid who can't stand still and forced to live in a small Texas town where dancing has been outlawed, has all the makings of a great piece of musical theater. Many of the pop songs culled from the film's original soundtrack are narrative-heavy and work well as show tunes. Unfortunately, they also set an unobtainable standard that's never matched by the show's lumbering original tunes.

Now I should probably point out that there wasn't an empty seat for Sunday's matinee, and the show is selling fast. The audience jumped to its feet to deliver a forceful standing ovation. To give credit where due, the cast is as energetic and quirky as the show is lazy and predictable, and most of the players deserve everything they get.

It is especially nice to see Kyle Barnette returning to Memphis to play Shaw Moore, a preacher whose personal fears have been codified into law. Too bad Barnette has been saddled with the show's most tuneless and obligatory songs. Bentley Black and Andrea Rouch charm as Ren and Ariel, his bad-girl-trying-to-go-good romantic interest, but many of the show's supporting characters are too over-the-top to be taken seriously. Their twangy country accents become an unfortunate placeholder for low IQs. Theresa Brignole, who plays the preacher's wife, and Amy Mays, who plays Ren's mom, are perhaps the only fully realized characters on stage.

It's obvious why Footloose the movie fooled critics (who hated it) and became a touchstone of the era. The soundtrack may have been pop, but the story was 100 percent classic rock about hard working heartlanders caught between a longing for security and the need to blow off some steam. The popularity of the musical, which seems nearly contemptuous of all the things that made the original tick, is more of a mystery. But instead of complaining too loudly, I'll be thankful for the little wins. You know, like Laura Stracko done up like Pat Benatar and singing the paranoid anthem "Somebody's Eyes." And the fact that I wasn't watching The Wedding Singer.

Through July 24th

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