Footloose, extracted from the popular 1984 film of the same name, is a Crayola crayon of a musical, dedicated to the old West Side Story proposition that teenagers will shrivel and die if not allowed to defy their elders and dance their keisters off.
Paradoxically, this new-age show is opening its extensive 35-city tour amidst the old-world splendor of the refurbished Allen Theatre. This enthusiastic, lumpy, likable, musical Frankenstein comes on as an explosion of spare parts. It's messily stitched together from decade-old soft rock chart-toppers, tentatively fashioned book songs, and a cartoon revamp of its Rebel Without a Cause-lite source--admittedly more of a product (the singing, dancing equivalent of a Ronco potato peeler) than an organic whole.
Unlike Rent or Jekyll and Hyde, it is blessedly free of artsy pretensions to weigh its bubblegum buoyancy down. While those two other aforementioned shows make one yearn for, respectively, a flamethrower and a bromo, with this impudent rascal of a musical, you want to pat it on its curly head, put braces on its teeth, and admonish it to behave: make up its mind whether it wants to be an '80s rock concert, a literal 3D reinterpretation of the movie, or a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical where book and score walk hand in hand.
Footloose has sprung from a long line of bastard children, stage recreations of motion pictures. Like dozens of other stage musicals yanked off the screen, it has had a hard time finding its footing, forced by the nature of the medium to relinquish cinema's privileges--in this case, Kevin Bacon's saucy pout, a Burger Barn montage of body parts (a leg, a knee, a butt) of bored teens coming to life when somebody puts a funky beat on the tape deck. In its place there is an amiable impressionism: sets that seem to be drawn in crayon, a trial conveyed in dance and musical verse. Then there is the Grease principle, whereby gym class or any other gathering can effortlessly transmogrify into a hullabaloo of a dance orgy.
1984's Footloose was not a musical but rather a drama, based on the absurd premise that a postwar town council would be permitted to ban all forms of dance. None of the characters actually burst into song, but background music was used to create a mood or accompany dance. As in all '80s music, audiences were not trusted to just suspend belief that the everyday world could contain a Judy Garland or a Gene Kelly to express their most intense emotions through song and dance.
Collaborators, including director Walter Bobbie and original screenplay writer Dean Pitchford, had to take the music from the background and move it to the front of things. They reinvented their non-singing characters using a sort of pre-'40s "anything goes" musical format, where lovable characters entertained at any pretext, with songs that have only a tenuous relationship to a threadbare story. Here, for example, the shy, awkward friend of the hero claims he can't dance, then within thirty seconds breaks into major terpsichorean acrobatics; his updated Ado Annie girlfriend trills the pop chart bestseller "Let's Hear It for the Boy," a song that was used as background music for a tractor race. We have a feeble stab at those Rodgers and Hammerstein-type songs created specifically to address the characters and their conflicts, such as "I Confess," a painful soliloquy vapidly set to music in the Carousel tradition so that the town minister can suddenly decide that dancing isn't such a sin after all, thereby giving us the dance explosion that is the title number. The final curtain can thus come down on pure knock-'em-in-the-aisles adrenaline.
Much like the film version of Grease, we have a piece endearing in its awkwardness. We forgive it even as it steps on our aesthetic toes; we cheer its Andy Hardy innocence. When a number does click, as in the Officer Krupke-like "Mama Says," we are on the outer limits of euphoria. When they try to treat Eric Carmen's plastic ballad "Almost Paradise" as though it were a Leonard Bernstein declaration of love, musical aficionados smile with bemused fatherly indulgence.
Seated in the double-digit nether regions of the auditorium, all the unfortunate newspaper folk could only espy the cast as a bunch of singing and dancing dots. Kevin Bacon's stand-in, Joe Machota, with his drippy enthusiasm, seemed to be the closest thing to an exclamation point. Christian Borle's friend-of-the-hero appeared the tangiest approximation of a human life form.
The obligatory standing ovation at evening's end indicated that the miniature electric cattle prods embedded in the Allen seats are still working quite well.
Footloose, through January 3, at the Allen Theatre, Playhouse Square, 216-241-6000.