WEST VALLEY — In the grips of the hottest summer Utah has ever experienced, what better escape than a cool, dark theater brimming with 1980s pop hits? I can’t think of one. My excitement for attending a traditional indoor theater after nearly 18 months mingled freely with the joy of the cast and other patrons. Sitting down in the intimate space of the West Valley Performing Arts Center (the former home of the Hale Centre Theatre) aided in the feeling of homecoming. To be sure, Utah is not out of the grip of the pandemic, so as the signs on the door encouraged, I kept my trusty mask on throughout the show. Nevertheless, I found Footloose‘s classic story of youth and love overcoming the anxieties of an older generation to be a breath of fresh air.
Most of the audiences are likely familiar with the movie versions of Footloose from 1984 or 2011, but this was my first time seeing the 1998 stage version. I found the show improved by a streamlined plot and the addition of flashy musical numbers. With a modern eye, the script by Dean Pitchford and Walter Bobbie doesn’t shy away from highlighting the dangers of fear-based religious conservatism. It shines a light on domestic violence, undue political sway, and patriarchal control of women’s voices, while avoiding pinning the blame on faith or religion. Rather, it celebrates community, communication, and healing. It somehow manages all this with a simple focus on the budding romance between new-kid-in-town, Ren, and preacher’s-daughter, Ariel, and their fight to legalize dancing in their small town.
Elijah Thomas and Amanda Baugh, as Ren and Ariel (respectively), lead the cast of talented locals. Both highlight the youthful exuberance and wide-eyed sincerity needed for the roles. They compliment each other’s acting and singing nicely. The rest of the large cast is nicely filled out with standout performances from Doug Irey and Dianna Graham as Ariel’s loving but protective parents and Julia Jolley as Ren’s down on her luck mother, Ethel.
The show opens as the audience meets Ren at a club in Chicago, a perfect chance to kick things off with fun and flare. However, the choreography by Ismael Arrieta and Abrea Delgrosso felt lackadaisical. Perhaps the steps are simple to accommodate the general skill level of the amateur cast or to ensure their safety in the small space. But these concerns were amplified by a noticeable lack of energy and finish by some members of the ensemble as they opened the Saturday matinee. The dancing and energy improved they rolled through the score of 1980s classics like “Holding Out for a Hero” and “Almost Paradise.” There are certainly standout dancers among the cast who were clearly cast for their skills, but then oddly they did not sing or even mouth the lyrics (by Pitchford and Kenny Loggins) during some group musical numbers.
One other small criticism is the age differential among the cast. The plot hinges on the stringent generational divide between the parents and teenagers of Bomont, but other than some excellent exceptions, just about everyone on stage looks to be about the same age. To be sure, this is a challenge of the small space and some casting limitations. Gratefully, Kelsey Nichols‘s costume design does a solid job of differentiating the various parent and child relationships. She also shows off late 1980s fashion in all it’s glory without falling into gimmicks.
Ensemble member Liz Whittaker deserves special props for her versatility and sparkle as she bounced between diverse roles, like buttoned up town council member and rough-and-tumble burger joint owner. Her dance solo during a scene change earned the obvious delight of the audience.
Justin Jenkins‘s set design is also delightful in its high level of execution. It is beautifully detailed and light on its feet, rolling and flying in and out of the space without a sound as the scene changes whiz by. The entire production staff, headed by director Jennifer Hill Barlow are to be complimented on their smooth execution. Jaron Hermansen‘s lights dazzle, the live band and mics are balanced, and a fog machine adds a perfect touch of romance for the big kiss.
So despite some minor imperfections, Footloose is a great time. What else can I say? I am a woman of simple tastes. Give me a mirror ball, a small town romance, and some toe-tapping hits in a well air conditioned theater and I’m set.