At one point in the Rainbow Stage production of Footloose, we are delightfully distracted by actors on the upper stage pretending to be John Cusack in Say Anything (1989) and Tom Cruise in Risky Business (1983). Call it a playful moment of cinematic affinity: Footloose itself was based on a movie from 1984, but alas, not an especially good one. One can't help but wonder if either of those other superior movies given a quick cameo would not have yielded a better musical.
As it is, this stage adaptation by Dean Pitchford and Walter Bobbie offers up a far-fetched fable about a small town that has made dancing illegal, and the restless big-city kid who takes on the oppressive status quo.
The premise is pure corn, but director Carson Nattrass, at the helm of his first big musical production, doesn't turn it into an '80s pastiche, la Rock of Ages. Utilizing a more intimate, curtained-off 784-seat iteration of the Kildonan Park venue, Nattrass wisely aims for the heart in the belief that a talented cast, a tight musical ensemble and some seriously energetic choreography will butter this cob into something sweet, crunchy and surprisingly palatable. And he is proved right.
Ren McCormack (played by 21-year-old actor David Ball) must help his mom (Jennifer Lyon) pack up their Chicago digs upon the exit of Ren's dad, only to take up residence in the backwater burg of Bomont. In church, he meets the Rev. Shaw Moore (Doug McKeag), the minister responsible for the no-dancing edict, as well as his rebellious spitfire daughter Ariel (Julia McLellan), whose social predilections are nicely summed up in the spicy number The Girl Gets Around. Ren promptly makes an enemy of Ariel's thuggish boyfriend Chuck (Jeremy Walmsley), makes a friend out of the lunkish, good-hearted Willard (Markian Tarasiuk) and generally raises the ire of all Bomont's repressive citizenry with his freewheeling ways.
About the songs: the original tunes by Tom Snow and Dean Pitchford don't make much of an impression, save for Somebody's Eyes, a cautionary number about living under small-town surveillance and Let's Hear It for the Boy, the Deniece Williams hit from the original movie's soundtrack sung by an ebullient Stephanie Sy. As if to compensate, the musical hedges its bets with a sampling of '80s Top 40 such as Almost Paradise, Holding Out for a Hero, and of course, Kenny Loggins's titular Footloose.
The musical pickings might be depressing if this talented cast didn't sell it all. Ball and McLellan are an affable pair of young romantic leads (Nattrass cast as close to high school age as he could). They get solid support from the emotionally accessible McKeag, Jan Skene, poignant as the reverend's wife, the impressively caddish Jeremy Walmsley, and Sharon Bajer, who gets the biggest laugh of the evening as a burger-joint proprietress on roller skates.
About the dancing: choreographer Scott James Peter effortlessly integrates rock 'n' roll boogie, bumptious boot-scooting and gymnastic exuberance. It's a show unto itself.
Monday's opening night was introduced by an emotional Nattrass, describing how Rainbow Stage's late general manager Ken Peter took a chance giving him the directing gig.
Footloose demonstrates that Peter's faith in Nattrass, his son Scott, and indeed all of Winnipeg's musical theatre community, was not misplaced.
To July 8 at Kildonan Park
4 stars out of five