For a story about a ban on dancing, “Footloose” sure has a whole lot of uplifting choreography.
Of course that includes the final scene from the 1984 film. It’s where lead actor Kevin Bacon, as rabble-rousing newcomer Ren McCormack, shouts to fellow residents of Bomont, “I thought this was a party. Let’s dance!”
But cast members of the Chippewa Valley Theatre Guild production of the film’s stage adaptation say the footwork serves as a highlight throughout the story of small-town kids pushing to get leaders, including the stern Rev. Shaw Moore, to let them dance again. The production opens Thursday, June 27, in Pablo Center at the Confluence’s Jamf Theatre.
“We’ve worked really hard on our choreography,” said Megan Jungbluth, who plays the part of pastor’s daughter Ariel Moore.
“(A)nd it’s just so upbeat and fun,” she added, citing choreographer Amber Fox for her efforts. “And it’s more than just the last song. Even though, technically, dancing is banned through the majority of it, we still do it.”
Several actors and Frank Bartella, the production’s director, talked this week before a rehearsal about what they think the audience will appreciate in the show. Naturally, music and movement drew frequent acknowledgment.
“Dancing. Yeah,” said Shannen Murphy, who plays Rusty, one of the girls in the small town.
David Hirsch plays Rev. Moore but doesn’t share his character’s view.
“I don’t know what audiences are going to like,” he said. “I know what I like in rehearsal and what I go to shows to see, which is incredible songs.”
Aside from Kenny Loggins’ ubiquitous title tune, he added, “There are some songs that are heart-rendingly beautiful. ‘Almost Paradise’ is there; ‘Learning to be Silent’ is there.”
Other soundtrack songs that should strike a familiar chord are “Holding Out for a Hero” and “Let’s Hear It for the Boy.”
Lou Heimstead, who plays the pastor’s wife, Vi Moore, said the production team recently got a strong indication that regional audiences will enjoy the pure fun in the musical when they walked in Altoona’s Cinder City Days parade.
“(W)hen we announced that we were doing ‘Footloose,’ you should have seen people’s faces light up,” she said. “They were excited to just hear that ‘Footloose’ was going on. So they’re look for excitement, they’re looking for entertainment, they’re looking for a release from the real world going on here. Even though we are presenting a real world situation, it’s that energy and that positiveness that comes out in the end. That’s what people are looking for.”
More than one note
Other answers suggest there is more to the show than that one high-energy dimension.
“I agree that they will enjoy the music and dancing,” said Terri Tompkins, who plays Ren’s mom, Ethel McCormack, “although there’s a really good story in it, and I hope that (audience members) come away with a little bit deeper thought.”
Elaborating, Tompkins noted that, in the story, the dance ban came about after a terrible accident that left parents taking steps to protect their children.
“They’re kind of taking it out on the kids,” she said. “And then the kids try to rebel … and then nobody’s getting along. And the kids don’t understand why the parents are holding them so tight, and the parents’ … way of grieving is to hold so tight to these kids that they can’t help but say, ‘Leave me alone! I want to break away.’”
Daniel Palichat, playing Ren, has found inspiration in the way the characters effect positive change.
“I think it’s kind of cool how you can kind of connect it to real world situations … how anyone can make a difference if they don’t think something is right,” he said.
Jack Goings, portraying Ren’s newfound friend Willard, said that particular theme comes across stronger in the stage version than in the big-screen take.
“(I)n the movie it’s a lot of how Ren inspires a (small) amount of people to rise up and try and change the law,” he explained. “But in the musical he inspires an entire school’s worth of people … to join together for a common cause.”
PaPhawee Moua, in the role of Urleen, pointed to what lighthearted details of the show add apart from the bigger picture.
“There’s a lot of comedy in it and a lot of just little lines that you can laugh at,” Moua said. “And the little scenes between two people that would make a joke about something …”
Allie O’Neill, who plays Wendy Joe, found that the mix of comedy and serious message resonated with her.
“(T)his show does a really good job balancing the hard, difficult message that it’s giving about grief with the funny bits and the little interesting character moments that are really funny to watch so it keeps the audience engaged in that, but it also drives forward the message,” she said.
Based on real life
While the movie and stage production follow that tragedy-influenced plotline, Bartella pointed out the script is based on a real-life situation in Elmore City, Okla. The community did have a dance ban, but it was in effect from the place’s incorporation in 1898 to 1980. It finally ended when students persuaded city leaders to allow a dance, which drew international attention.
“That first dance was attended by all the different news networks and People magazine, and there was even a front page (story) in a China newspaper,” he said.
In talking about the show’s appeal, Bartella shared sentiments of other cast members but said he also was drawn to the directorial challenge of using the Jamf Theatre stage itself to inject even more energy into the action.
“So far shows have used it as a thrust or as a round,” he said. “And we’re going to literally bridge the mezzanines together and just make a literal bridge that people will run up and down to various platforms and jump from scene to scene to scene.”
Some cast members chose not to revisit the film when preparing for their roles, Hirsch among them.
“I’ve only seen the first movie and specifically avoided watching either of the movies in preparation for the production because I wanted to have Frank’s vision for it,” he said.
Jungbluth took the opposite approach in portraying Ariel.
“I literally did a double feature of the movies when I got the part,” she said. “I literally rented them both and watched them both in one night because I was nervous.”
Goings also took a look.
“I saw ‘Footloose’ even before I planned on auditioning,” he said.
What fans of the film will see onstage, Murphy said, will impress them.
“I just think the movie doesn’t really have the emotional connection that we kind of give off,” she said, adding, “And I think it’s a lot lot more funny because you can interact with the crowd almost because they’re right in front of us.”
Bartella effectively included his cast’s observations about “Footloose” in his own summation.
“Definitely the singing and the dancing are something that the audience is going to enjoy incredibly,” he said. “They’re also going to enjoy the spectacle of it all, especially of running from mezzanine to mezzanine and up and down the bridge. Just the whole different use of the stage is going to be a wow factor.”
As he further noted, “Even though many people have talked about the message, it’s still a fun show. It’s got comedy, it’s got beautiful songs, it’s got incredible dancing that will make you go ...” (he affects the sound of a gasp). “So it’s still going be a lot of fun.”