It’s easy to make fun of the 1980s because, duh, they were the 1980s. The era of neon legwarmers, Gunne Sax prairie prom dresses and jeans so high-waisted and tight you could practically get a yeast infection just looking at them is ripe for mockery.
With his staging at the Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire of the 1983-set “Footloose the Musical,” director Gary Griffin delivers a retro-rooted production that’s easy to laugh at while also telling the timeless story of a precocious teen and the tragically puritanical town he transforms through the power of Kenny Loggins’ songs (among others).
Before the first note is uttered, we know precisely what year it is: A projection above the open, in-the-round stage announces “Welcome to Chicago, 1983, Harold Washington Mayor.” The second projection by “media designer” Liviu Pasare is a replica of a sign — no, of the sign — for Medusa’s, the late, great Lake View juice bar with dance floors that, like black holes, swallowed up entire weekends.
When: Through June 2
Where: Marriott Theatre, 10 Marriott Dr., Lincolnshire
Tickets: $50-$60, dinner-theater packages available
Run time: 2 hours, including 15-minute intermission
Adapted by Dean Pitchford and Walter Bobbie (based on Pitchford’s screenplay), the 1998 stage version of “Footloose“ (lyrics by Pitchford, music by Tom Snow, Loggins, Eric Carmen, Sammy Hagar and Jim Steinman) will forever remain in the shadow of the 1984 movie that inspired it, not least because of Kevin Bacon’s career-making turn as Ren McCormack. A Chicago high school senior when his dad walks out, “Footloose” begins with Ren and his mom leaving Chicago to move in with family in Bomont, population 691.
Bomont, as the exposition helpfully explains, is a town with no malls, no movies and absolutely no dancing. Since the death of a group of teenagers who drove off a bridge after a night of dancing, Bomont has adopted Cotton Mather-worthy laws. Dancing is illegal.
Can plucky Ren (Aidan Wharton) bring joy back to a town strangling within an iron fist borne of tragedy and religious tyranny? Will Rev. Moore (Jim Stanek) have a come-to-Jesus moment and soften his grief-hardened heart? Will everyone kick off their Sunday shoes and cut loose?
Here’s a hint: yes.
What makes the Marriott’s staging entertaining despite the story’s predictability and paper-thin characters is Griffin’s ability to find emotional truth in the cheesiest of situations. That’s crucial because everybody looks ridiculous (kudos to costume designer Anna Wooden, who gets everything right, from the faux painters’ pants to the man-Spanx gym shorts) and sometimes also sounds ridiculous (it’s hard to keep a straight face during “Almost Paradise,” wherein two teens who have barely cleared puberty sadly sing about how they’ve given up on love).
The major selling point for “Footloose” is leading lady Lucy Godinez as Ariel, the preacher’s daughter. In keeping with all the other characters in the show, Ariel is a cliché: tough girl on the outside, hurting/sensitive soul on the inside.
Godinez elevates that cliché into someone relatable. When she lets loose on “Holding Out for a Hero,” it’s like watching a comet. Aided by William Carlos Angulo’s fantastic choreography, Godinez sets the song on fire, drawing the entire ensemble into her light.
Aidan Wharton’s Ren pales by comparison, in part because he reads way too old for the role. He looks more like the hot, new social studies teacher and less like an adolescent. He also lacks the incandescent footwork the part demands. He’s a competent dancer, but Ren requires more than mere competence, especially with the shadow of Kevin Bacon ever in the room.
Griffin’s supporting cast fares better. As gawky, geeky Willard, Ben Barker mines boot-loads of comedy from a hayseed who could be L’il Abner Rust Belt cousin. As Rusty, Monica Ramirez’ clarion vocals make “Let’s Hear it for the Boy” a boot-stomping hootenanny. As Rev. Moore’s wife Vi, Johanna McKenzie Miller captures layers of unspoken pain inside of a handful of everyday syllables. Though saddled with a solo (“Heaven Help Me”) mired in bathos, Stanek finds the heart in Rev. Moore’s alternately overwrought and repressed emotions.
Angulo’s choreography explodes in the finale, a mega-mix of the score’s greatest hits. Under set designer Scott Davis’ steel-beam scaffolding (nicely evoking the trains and bridges that play a part in the plot), the cast dances like it’s last call at Medusa’s.
It’s enough to make the Marriott’s boomer-centric subscriber base recall a time when a juice bar was almost paradise.
Catey Sullivan is a freelance writer.