Tibbits Lets Loose with ‘Footloose’
COLDWATER, Mich.–A joke from my youth went, “Why don’t Nazarenes have sex standing up?” The answer? “It might lead to dancing.”
It’s a joke that could have been told in the town of Bomont, as well. Bomont is where all the action takes place in Footloose, the 1998 musical that is now being performed as part of Tibbits Summer Opera House’s season.
Footloose is set in the 1980s, in a small town where everyone knows everyone else’s business. Because of an accident that killed four of the town’s young people, the city council has made dancing illegal and the local minister, Rev. Shaw Moore (Peter Riopelle), preaches against the evils of rock music.
Into this town comes Ren McCormick (Jacob Major), a transplant from Chicago. He and his mother have moved into his uncle’s house because his father left them and his mother could no longer support them. There is an immediate culture clash. There is nothing welcoming about this town. Nearly everyone is pretty cruel to Ren at first.
In fact, despite its reputation as a “feel-good” musical, Footloose is pretty dark and violent. Ren is repeatedly assaulted and no one does anything to defend him. Ariel (Paige Butz) is given a black eye by her ex-boyfriend and not a single adult even notices, much less does anything about it or expresses outrage. While the musical offers a resolution to the lack of dancing, it does not to the violence.
There is also a degree of sexism that is bound to make modern audiences uncomfortable. The women are repeatedly hushed and told to be silent for no other apparent reason than their gender. This is underlined with the song that was added to the musical, “Learning to Be Silent.”
Director Charles Burr emphasizes the musical’s darkness in the choices that he makes with the character’s interactions, with Catie Blencowe’s lighting design, and the blocking of the set. The number “Somebody’s Eyes” particularly introduces a sense of characters being stalked in a rather creepy manner.
Major does a good job of showing Ren as a fish out of water. He’s easy to sympathize with as it is clear his reputation as a troublemaker isn’t due to any of his actions, but merely his role as an outsider. He is earnest and filled with angst. Major also fills him with an energy that is different from the others on the stage, helping to establish his outsider role.
Butz is perfect for the role of Ariel. She starts out sweetly submissive and wholesome—until her parents leave the stage and then she rips off her dress to reveal the tight jeans and hot red halter top underneath. Then, she is all teenage sex appeal, especially when she hooks up with her boyfriend, Chuck Cranston (Jackson Mattek) The scene between the two of them, “The Girl Gets Around,” must have required stagehands nearby with fire extinguishers it was so hot.
But between those two extremes, Butz is able to create a genuine character, a senior in high school who is frustrated at home and just wants to get as far away as she can. The chemistry between Butz and Major lacks the heat of hers with Mattek, but is genuine and touching. These two are clearly good for each other.
The only drawback is that while their personalities gel, their voices do not. Individually, both are good soloists and have lovely voices. When the two of them sing the duet, “Almost Paradise,” their voices simply do not blend. Nor does Dougie Robbins choreography (or perhaps it was Burr’s direction, it is hard to tell from the audience who made this particular choice) assist them at all. When the lyrics talk about looking each other deep into the eyes, they move away from each other, looking off in opposite directions. When the lyrics talk about being in each other’s arms, there is a huge distance between them. The movement throughout three-quarters of the song contradicts what they are saying.
Ariel’s father, the local minister is played by Riopelle, who just completed his run as the Devil in “Damn Yankees.” He ensures that Moore is a complex character, something more than a stereotypical conservative minister. He’s motivated more from loss and his personal relationships than he is from the real conviction that dancing is a sin. Riopelle plays him as a man with a burden, one whose anger is always tinged with sadness and self-doubt. He especially excels in the sermon he delivers near the end of the show.
One of the standout performances of the show comes from Nikki Ferrara who plays Rusty, one of Ariel’s girlfriends. Hers is one of the strongest voices and she is convincing in her ongoing crush on Willard (Isaac Jankowski), the awkward cowboy who isn’t particularly bright, especially when it comes to interacting with women. Ferrara especially shines in her number, “Let’s Hear It For the Boy.”
Debbie Culver plays Vi Moore, the minister’s wife and Ariel’s mother. Culver gives Vi a great deal of quiet strength to the wife as well as portraying a longing she has for the husband and family she used to have. She has the wisdom to see what is happening, but not the ability to make any changes. The scene at the end between Culver and Riopelle is sweet and provides an optimism that the show needs.
Frank Blackmore’s set design consists primarily of a graffiti-covered backdrop. While there is one reference to graffiti decorating an isolated part of town, the overall look seemed out of sync with Bomont. It was more fitting for Chicago where the play opened than the small town of Bomont. Blackmore created a platform high above the main stage from which Rev. Moore could give his sermons and Ariel and Ren could escape to a place high above the train tracks. It did, however, contribute to some awkward moments where characters were waiting for Rev. Moore to get down the steps and up to where the crowd gathered before lines could be delivered. It was hard to tell during the Friday night production whether the actors had forgotten their lines or whether the director had failed to solve the blocking issue in getting characters where they needed to be to avoid the odd silences.
“Footloose” is filled with popular songs from the 80s and this production works as a serious drama, one which explores the consequences of loss, the frustration of youth, the need for physical expression and the small-mindedness that can make misery of people’s lives. It doesn’t provide all the answers, but Burr makes sure the questions are raised and does it with a talented cast.