A show about a town where dancing is illegal. Set in 17th century Puritan England, right? Wrong. It’s the touring stage adaptation of the ever-popular film Footloose, which is actually set in Bomont, West Virginia. Bizarrely enough it’s based on reality – a 90-year dancing ban was instigated in Elmore City, Oklahoma (for religious & moral reasons) and only overturned in 1980 when a group of teenagers fought to hold an end of year prom. It’s the same tale in Footloose, other than the much more recent ban being put in place following a tragic accident that rocked the tight-knit community.
It could be all too easy to dismiss it as another ‘kind of’ jukebox musical, or roll your eyes at it being another stage version of a film (something which I frequently do). Ultimately, it is meant to be a fun night out, but it also manages to be uplifting & full of heart – and does feature a significant number of original songs amidst some well-known 80s hits. These songs can be a bit hit & miss, and there are far too many slow & soppy ballads that could sometimes be better played as short scenes with backing music. There are some highlights – particularly Mama Says (You Can’t Back Down) and Let’s Hear It For The Boy.
Unexpectedly perhaps, for a musical of this genre, all of the instruments are played onstage – and by a cast of actor-musicians. This adds a certain immediacy to proceedings that can sometimes be lost when a band is hidden away (or if, God forbid, a backing track is used instead). The range of instruments on show is eclectic; from the usual guitar right through to a cello & oboe!
Visually Footloose impresses, thanks to Sara Perks’ design. The costumes are vibrant & unashamedly 80s – and the set manages to be striking as well as practical. If you then consider that this is a touring production, you have to admire the commitment that must have gone into its development & ongoing management.
On the whole, Matthew Cole’s choreography is hugely dynamic. There are a couple of set-piece numbers in the first act where it could be turned up a bit – but these are more than made up for by the insanely energetic finale that seems to just keep on going! For me, personally, the stage show is made more enjoyable than the film largely because of the thrill of watching live dancing.
For this leg of the tour, Lee Brennan (of 911 fame) takes on the role of Willard (Gareth Gates is playing this part for the majority of the tour). He certainly plays it for laughs – maybe going a little over the top & exaggerated at times, but admittedly this does work well when it comes to his own song (Mama Says) and when he tries to learn how to dance. He also forms a very sweet partnership with Joanna Sawyer (love interest, Rusty), which feels genuinely believable.
Hannah Price is feisty, yet vulnerable, as preacher’s daughter Ariel Moore. She presents each side of her character fantastically & with real depth – and she has one heck of a voice! Holding Out For A Hero is a real highlight of the show – Bonnie Tyler had better watch out…
The parents are played well by Nigel Lister (Rev Moore), Maureen Nolan (Mrs Moore) & Nicky Swift (Mrs McCormack), with Lister being the undoubted standout of the three, particularly as the show progresses. Nolan is very much overshadowed, and it does leave you wondering why a star name seemed to be required for this role.
But the undeniable star of the show is its leading man, Luke Baker (Ren McCormack). With seemingly boundless energy he encapsulates everything that makes his character who he is. Ren is sharp & cocky, thanks to Baker’s flawless comic timing. Yet his struggle to be accepted (and accept the new route his life has taken) is truly heartfelt & very moving. As expected, Ren has a lot of dancing to do throughout the show, and Baker seems to have taken this completely in his stride, displaying great stamina & skill without fail. There is a West End leading role with his name on it, you mark my words.
My verdict? Fast, fun & full of heart, with a knockout ensemble & a wealth of toe-tapping hits – in Luke Baker a star is born.
Footloose runs at the New Wimbledon Theatre until 7 May 2016, and is touring the UK until 15 October 2016. Tickets are available online or at theatre box offices.