Review: Footloose

Broadway World Reviews: Cast of SummersStock Austin’s FOOTLOOSE Far Exceeds Material

by Jeff Davis

Austin’s theater scene is currently only one degree of separation away from Kevin Bacon. SummerStock Austin’s production of Footloose, one of three musicals currently running in rep at The Long Center for the Performing Arts, is a fun, upbeat, and entertaining show, despite its weak and uninspired material.

The musical, which proved to be a modest success on Broadway back in 1998, is based on the 1998 film of the same name. Teenager Ren McCormack (Donelvan Thigpen) moves from Chicago to a small town which, due to the prodding of the town’s minister (Vincent Hooper), has outlawed dancing. It’s up to Ren to get the town dancing again, and in the process he attracts the attention of the Reverend’s rebellious daughter (Mariel Ardilla).

If there’s anything to criticize in Footloose, it’s the material itself. The stage version fails to fix any of the weak points in the film. The stakes aren’t high, the premise absurd (really, a town outlaws dancing and no one thinks that’s unconstitutional?), and the female lead is obnoxious and unsympathetic. Overall, the material takes itself too seriously. It might be more enjoyable if it was a send-up of the film.

But while the material has it’s many flaws, SummerStock Austin’s production of it is as flawless as they come. Director/Choreographer Ginger Morris gives the show lots of big, eye-popping numbers. The title song, which opens and closes the show, more than lives up to expectations and is the showstopper it should be. The large ensemble cast proves to be more than capable at executing the ambitious and challenging choreography. The performers’ energy breathes life into the lifeless book and score.

Donelvan Thigpen is wonderful in the lead role of Ren. A strong singer and even stronger dancer, Thigpen is thoroughly charismatic and likeable. As Ren’s love interest, Ariel, Mariel Ardilla shows that she’s a young performer to watch. She’s beautiful and, like Thigpen, a true triple threat. Sadly, the role is pretty basic (the rebellious teen with a thing for bad boys and some issues at home) and doesn’t give Ardilla a lot to explore. As Reverend Moore, the livelyVincent Hooper is cast against type which gives him an opportunity to showcase a different side of his talents. A skilled dancer with a strong voice, Hooper’s character here calls for him to be more reserved. He plays the role more evenly than John Lithgow does in the film. There’s more development of the character, more conflict, and more underneath the Reverend’s cold, stern façade. Susannah Metzger, Gabriela Delano, and Hannah McEvilly also stand-out as Ariel’s group of besties. Metzger is particularly adorable when paired with Kyle Coughlin who plays Ren’s redneck pal, Willard, and it’s astonishing how easily Coughlin sells his Act II character number despite the oddity of a country-themed song stuck into a show stuffed with 1980s pop tunes.

Though Footloose could benefit from some rewrites, SummerStock Austin makes the most of the mediocre material. They kick off their Sunday shoes with gusto, and if you’re able to cast the lackluster material aside and just have fun, it’s an enjoyable ride.