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Theater review: Young cast cuts loose in Playhouse’s ‘Footloose’

Entertaining musical opened Friday night and runs through July 17 at the NorShor.

DNT review
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The weather outside cooled down, but things certainly heated up on the NorShor stage Friday night with the premiere of “Footloose,” the musical based on the 1984 movie with its epic earworm title song. This is an enjoyable evening of entertainment, primarily because of the energy of the young cast members elevating the material.

Ren McCormack (Jacob Higdon) is forced to relocate from Chicago to the isolated southwestern town of Bomont, where Reverend Shaw Moore (Phillip Hoelscher) has outlawed dancing and rock music. Ren likes both of those things, and he also likes Ariel (Hope Nordquist), the Reverend’s rebellious daughter.

So this is a story of a cultural and generational clash between adult conservatives and liberal teenagers, which might sound like it is ripped from today’s headlines but is set in the distant past when Unleaded Super was $1.13 a gallon (bonus points for getting the price of gas circa 1984 right).

Higdon is certainly a more polished dancer than Kevin Bacon, but his greatest strength was his acting in the scenes between the songs, especially in his private and public confrontations with Shaw in Act 2. The script does Nordquist a disservice by not giving her more opportunities to sing.

Hoelscher forgoes the hellfire route in his sermons for a more serene approach in making his pious judgments. The payoff to this approach comes at the end when Shaw sees the light and Hoelscher makes his change of heart believable.

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One thing I know about this show is that Willard Hewitt always ends up being the audience’s favorite character, not just because he is intentionally unintentionally funny but also because in this case Sam Hildestad is a head, neck, and collar bone taller than the object of his affections, Lussi Salmela’s sassy Rusty.

Of course his “Mama Says” gets an encore.

Dean Pitchford, who wrote the original screenplay along with the lyrics for the songs, also did this stage adaptation, collaborating with composer Tom Snow on additional numbers. Given nobody actually sang in the film, Pitchford comes up with contexts for characters to actually sing each song.

Obviously Rusty belts out “Let’s Hear It for the Boy” while Willard is learning how to dance, but the other songs have twists, so we are not getting carbon copies of the soundtrack versions. I especially liked the slow build beginning for “Holding Out for a Hero” sung by Ariel and her wing women.

The “Almost Paradise” duet between Ariel and Ren was arguably more powerful not being a power ballad, but the song receiving the biggest upgrade was “Somebody’s Eyes,” which is transformed into something significantly more directed sung by Rusty, Urleen (Maddie Shafer), and Wendy Jo (Reagan Kern).

The best way to characterize how the musical is different from the movie is that Kevin Bacon’s gigantic outburst of dance to “Never” has been replaced by the more sedate “I Can’t Stand Still,” where Ren introduces his love of dancing to the locals.

The new songs are definitely a mixed bag. “The Girl Gets Around” is probably the best of the bunch, and it goes to Chuck, the local bully boy, played with great relish by Chuck Cranston, who gets to double dip as Cowboy Boy in “Still Rockin.’”

Most of the new songs go to flesh out the parents. Shaw’s “Heaven Help Me” reveals the depths of his inner conflict. His wife, Vi (Christina Stroup), and Ren’s mom Ethel (Alyson Enderle), sing about their plight in “Learning to Be Silent.” Stroup, best known for big brassy stage numbers, shows she is equally effective with quieter numbers like “Can You Find it in Your Heart.”

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I was struck by how many little character bits director Phillip Fazio came up with for everybody on stage, and how often supporting characters got laughs, especially Shafer and Kern.

Andy Frey’s choreography works in line dancing for “Still Rockin’” and incorporates several gym class exercises and those giant red balls into “I’m Free.” I appreciated what he worked up for the title song in the finale given he is competing with the film’s iconic glitter bomb finale.

Lawrance Bernabo is a theater and arts reviewer for the News Tribune. He does not have a Kevin Bacon Number but once got an autograph from Sandy Dennis, whose number is 2.

If you go

What: The Duluth Playhouse’s “Footloose”

Where: NorShor Theatre, 211 E. Superior St.

When: June 24-July 17, Thursday-Saturday at 7:30 p.m., Sundays at 2:00 p.m.

Tickets: $42-53. Call 218-733-7555 or purchase online through DuluthPlayhouse.org

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