Footloose the Musical can be summarised in one memorable image: an oiled up Gareth Gates stood on top of a car, gyrating into the air with little else on but a pair of golden short shorts. Tennessee Williams, this is not. There is, of course, absolutely nothing wrong with a piece of theatre being a little fun and frivolous; the hordes of middle-aged women in the crowd certainly seemed to be having a splendid time. It’s a production which seems to take a great deal of delight in bringing to life some of the cheesiest aspects of the eighties, with neon accessories and questionable American accents galore. This cheese is supported by a high level of energy, supported by the actors on stage performing live a variety of instruments. Unfortunately, as a whole the musical felt soured by a few flat notes, which prevented it from reaching it’s full peppy potential.

As a show, Footloose the Musical is clearly pitched for the enjoyment of a certain generation, with both the celebrity actors (Gareth Gates and Maureen Nolan) and the music a fair few years out of date (fun fact: my programme tells me Gareth Gates has taken some time away from music to launch coconut tea product Cuppanut – who knew he was a man of such varied talents?). Surprisingly Gates, who plays Willard, spends very little of his time on stage actually singing which seems like a bit of a wasted casting opportunity. Alas, his acting prowess doesn’t really extend much beyond looking good in denim and an overblown country mouse shtick. This feels like a strangely dated portrayal of Willard, who even in the original 80s film isn’t much of a redneck beyond a penchant for cowboy hats. This isn’t the only example of what feels like lacklustre casting and writing in the musical, which is a shame given it feels like a story with more potential than displayed on the stage.

One character in particular, feels like an archetype so dated that they don’t even exist in the original film and were presumably written specially for the stage production. Wendy-Jo, played by Emma Fraser, is one of a girl group who is close friends with the female lead (Ariel) and she’s present in many of the productions’ songs and scenes. It appears though that one of her primary functions is to be the archetypal “fat”, funny friend. Pop culture analyst Beth Bernstein classifies this stereotype as the character who “never has a boyfriend, is never the focus of a story, but is kind of endearing”.[1] At several points during the musical I wondered what Emma Fraser herself thought of this role, frequently being the butt of jokes suggesting her character is inherently greedy or unlovable. At one point the girl group are at a burger joint and make an order; all the slim female characters only order a coke whereas Wendy-Jo lists off a long list of various food items. Later, the friendship group discusses what qualities their perfect guy would possess; Wendy-Jo goes last in her description and simply says a “guy”. This repeated joke set up is lazy comedy at best and highly offensive at worst. These lines certainly seem to get a laugh from the audience though, so it’s safe to say that Wendy-Jo’s character definitely fulfils the “likeable” part of Bernstein’s description.

In a further, quite bizarre moment in the final prom number, I’m also certain that I spot all the other young women paired up with men their own age to dance with, whereas Wendy-Jo looks to have been saddled with an inappropriate “uncle” character. In 2017 it feels vaguely exhausting that this archetype is even still a thing in a major theatre production. While this production draws a lot of great inspiration from the past, this outdated portrayal of a larger woman isn’t one of them.

The musical still manages to shine at points, primarily when one of the major recognisable ballads are being performed. A rendition of “Holding out for a Hero” is particularly fun, and sung well by Hannah Price. The two main leads as a whole are fairly strong, with Joshua Dowen bringing to the role of Ren an endearing earnestness. It must be difficult to perform in a role which is so perfectly encapsulated by another portrayal; throughout I couldn’t help comparing Dowen to Kevin Bacon, which can only ever be an unfair comparison. An even worse comparison occurs between that of the 1984 film’s Reverend Shaw and that we find on stage. Whilst John Lithgrow’s performance of the conservative and troubled preacher is highly charismatic, Reuven Gershon’s is sadly deeply forgettable. Gershon isn’t entirely to blame, one of Reverend Shaw’s key songs in the musical, “Heaven Help Me”, seems to have endless reprises and yet not the emotional power to warrant them. It’s worth noting, however, that the musical originally won a Tony for Best Original Score, so I suppose a level of subjectivity has to be appreciated with regard to what I’m saying.

Overall Footloose the Musical was a fun, somewhat cringe-worthy romp which feels like it’s perhaps past its time. In a theatrical climate where you have the whip-crack smart writing of productions such as Book of Mormon or the musical ingeniuity of Hamilton, this show feels old-fashioned by association. You can throw all the cowboy boots and brass instruments you want at it, you’re still going to end up with a production whose pre-interval show-stopper was what can only be described as a musical PE lesson. No doubt it can and will provide older audiences with a sweet hit of nostalgia for years to come, but I can’t help but feel Footloose is a story better left in the 80s.

Footloose the Musical is touring the UK until 3rd November. For more information and tickets see here.

 

[1] Beth Bernstein, “Big, Fat Stereotypes Play Out On The Small Screen”, NPR 8th August 2011. http://www.npr.org/2011/08/08/138958386/big-fat-stereotypes-play-out-on-the-small-screen