There’s something irresistible about the triumph of the teenager, particularly when it involves correcting the judgment lapses of misguided adults. Amid all that hormone-crazed social mortification, it's a cheeky treat to see that famously sulky set bond in solidarity to break ranks with the parental powers that be.
That may well be what prompted Charleston Stage to open its 2019-20 season with “Footloose," the musical reprise of the 1984 film in which the teens take over a dance-banning town of Bomont to get it back on its feet again. The selection also represents a bold departure from this year's multiple mountings around town of “Matilda," the now-ready-for-regional-theater show that boasts a similarly recalcitrant, much younger heroine and a kid-carrying cast.
"Footloose" is certainly on mission. Charleston Stage has for more than 40 years given voice to emerging performers, shepherding them through an empowering youth program, through which they can show their stuff on the Dock Street Theatre stage and amass similarly enriching skills behind the scenes.
And those efforts have helped launch some mighty impressive, nationally acclaimed careers in the performing arts. There is Jacob Dickey, who this July nabbed the title role of "Aladdin" in its current Broadway production. There is composer and teaching artist Thomas Cabaniss, who works in the latter capacity at The Juilliard and Carnegie Hall. There is also Thomas Gibson, who has landed long-running leading roles in television series such as "Criminal Minds" and "Dharma & Greg."
So when it comes to championing the guiding principle of "teens rule, grownups drool," the "Footloose" shoe more than fits this company. The 1998 musical harnesses the original screenplay written by Dean Pitchford for the movie starring Kevin Bacon, and thus making him a jean-clad, high-jumping household name. Pitchford worked with Walter Bobbie on the stage adaptation.
And, yes, in addition to Pitchford's original lyrics and Tom Snow's music, the musical brings out the boomer-friendly Billboard-busters like Kenny Loggins' "Footloose" and Sammy Hagar's "The Girl Gets Around."
For those who somehow missed the '80s barn-burner, the musical retells the story of Ren McCormack, a high school student uprooted from pop music-pulsing Chicago to the religiously repressive town. There, he aims to rally the corn-fed local high school students to get the town on the dance floor once more.
Given the topic and the company, there was a suitably robust showing of teenagers in the ensemble in the current production, which was directed by Marybeth Clark. They were all-in for Cara Dolan's choreography, which spanned styles from dance club to hoedown. The cast does so on a smart set designed by Cody Rutledge, economically rolling in a line of lockers and such.
I did crave a few more of them in the lead roles. These were cast from Charleston Stage's resident acting company, a choice likely made to avail of the vocal and performance training necessary to deliver the demanding number of songs.
A quasi-jukebox musical, the show rolls out songs with which the audience is familiar, thus adding the pressure of the expectations of that nostalgia. They did so under the musical direction of Sam Henderson.
An energetic Justin Gaskill took the lead as Ren, playing up a gangly, kid-like zeal. He was matched with the sweet-faced, spirited Mary Kate Foley, who portrayed his love interest, Ariel, the rebellious preacher's daughter.
Of particular note was Julia Kelly-Davis, in the supporting role of Rusty, who unleashed the sheer force of funny that enlivened her every scene, with a special nod for her rendition of "Let's Hear it for the Boy." In the role of her crush, Willard, Colin Waters was equally at ease and crowd-pleasing when cutting fool.
For me, the stage adaptation “Footloose” by Pitchford and Bobbie doesn’t quite make it off the ground, leaving on the cutting room floor good chunks of the charm of the original film. However, its main premise remains intact, which is that boneheaded grownups best mind their heed. You never know when adolescents could be compelled to organize against you.
With Charleston Stage giving voice to a new generation of rabble-rousers, they're certain to get the word to aim high — and kick high, too.