By Dave R. Davison
It is just possible that audiences at Tacoma Musical Playhouse’s opening production of “Footloose” (directed by Jon Douglas Rake) are witnessing the birth of a star. The show’s leading lady Jessica Furnstahl, who plays the part of Ariel Moore, is a Sumner High School senior and is in her first main stage performance. Furnstahl nevertheless is possessed of the poise and the windpipes necessary to excel in the role. She has the acting talent, the dance skills and the good looks that it takes to go supernova – to become a glittering star – provided that’s the course that she chooses for herself.
“Footloose, the Musical,” based on the 1984 movie starring Kevin Bacon, John Lithgow and Lori Singer, is the story of big city boy Ren McCormack (Jake Atwood) who, along with his mother Ethel (Linda Palacios), has to move to the small town of Bomont to live with Ethel’s sister and her husband because the McCormacks’ father/husband left the family to “find himself.”
Ren is a rather rambunctious fellow that had been able to attend dance halls back in the big city whenever he needed to get his ya-yas out. In the town of Bomont, however, there is a law against dancing. This law was engineered by Reverend Shaw Moore (Gary Chambers), the town minister who blames rock music and dancing for having contributed to the use of alcohol and drugs, which, he believes, contributed to the death of four of the town’s youth, an event that has taken place prior to the story.
The Reverend Moore was once a good man, but has become increasingly isolated and now runs the town as a theocracy by exercising influence on members of the town council. It is Ren’s task to bring new vitality to the town by making the point that dancing is an expression of the joy of life and should not be banned. In the course of the tale, Ren also wins the heart of the reverend’s lovely but rebellious daughter Ariel. (I see shades of the “Little Mermaid” here.)
The aforementioned Furnstahl employs her golden voice, her dancing skills and her bright presence to flesh out the role of a young woman seeking to come to terms with various forms of grief and repression.
Leading man Atwood, one of the hardest working actors on the local theatrical circuit, is able to show off some impressive dance skills of his own in his performance as Ren.
Chambers, another busy actor on the local scene, is usually seen in comic roles. Here, however, he shows that he can play characters with gravity. His portrayal of Reverend Moore is complex: an earnest man that grapples with his own grief and his exasperation with his daughter as he seeks to lead the townsfolk in an enlightened way. He is the pivot point that Ren must sway if vitality is to overcome a darkening of the collective soul of the town.
Vi Moore, the reverend’s sensitive wife, is played by Lindsay Hovey. Hovey’s creamy voice and supple demeanor breathe life into a sympathetic wife and mother who has not forgotten her own youth.
Some of the best music comes from the actresses that play Ariel’s three best friends: Rusty (Corissa Deverse,) Urleen (Emma Deloye) and Wendy Jo (Kiana Norman-Slack). All three give stellar performances, but Deverse really makes a splash with several impressive solo parts.
Much of the comic relief in the show comes from the outlandish Willard Hewitt (Cameron Waters). Dressed in exaggerated cowboy shirts or overalls, Willard shares the odd-ball wisdom of his mother and does some zany dancing. He is, nevertheless, a steadfast friend and supporter of Ren.
Where Willard is clownish, Chuck Cranston (Nick Clawson) is villainous: a bruiser who is prone to violence and tries to exert physical dominance over Ariel.
The TMP production of “Footloose” boasts a huge cast with many smaller parts and ensemble players that fill the stage with crowd scenes and large song and dance numbers. The high points of the show, however, are mostly interludes in which just a few characters are on the stage. In “Learning to be Silent,” for example, Palacios, Hovey and Furnstahl are standing, individually lit, on the bare stage and singing in three-part harmony of their various frustrations with men in their lives.
Likewise, the crescendo of the love story between Ren and Ariel is a duet of “Almost Paradise.” (It was a 1984 top 10 song of the Billboard Hot 100 when recorded by Mike Reno of Loverboy and Ann Wilson of Heart.)
Other highlights do utilize more of the cast. The haunting “Somebody’s Eyes” builds in power as more and more of the townsfolk join in and sing of the lack of privacy in a small town.
A favorite moment of my own is the four girlfriends, Ariel, Rusty, Wendy Jo and Urleen’s performance of “Holding Out for a Hero.” Set in the town’s fast food joint, the friends sing the popular song and are joined by dancers wearing florescent tutus, florescent socks and black tights that are decorated with crazy designs. It ends with guys dressed as members of the Village People doing pushups on stage.
During intermission, I overheard an audience member comment that he was enjoying the show, but the premise of the story — a town where dancing is against the law — was ridiculous. This commentator would be advised to delve a little into history. The events portrayed in “Footloose” were inspired by a dancing ban in the heavily Southern Baptist town of Elmore City, Oklahoma, which lasted until 1980. In Seattle, there was a teen dance ordinance that kept teens out of dance clubs between 1985 and 2002.
One drawback of the production is that the big dance numbers involve most of the cast packed onto the stage so that the dances became a blur of flailing limbs and sweating bodies that look more like aerobic exercises than light-footed expressions of the joie de vivre.
The two leading actors, Atwood and Furnstahl, always rise to the occasion with high kicks and tight moves as they leap and bound across the stage like young ponies. As mentioned, Furnstahl’s performance is the heart of this enjoyable show, which kicks off TMP’s 24th season.
For further information, visit tmp.org.