Theater review: Footloose at Asheville Community Theater
Bruce Steele: Asheville Community Theatre's Footloose is a true community theater production, with a range of talent and self-referential subject matter: It's a story about how music and dance can be healing forces in both individual lives and in a community. When everything came together, especially in Act Two, I found myself smiling broadly and having a great time. When did you feel the most footloose at Footloose?
Edwin Arnaudin: Either when lovable sidekick Willard (Adam Lentini) comically learns how to dance and his equally charming counterpart Rusty (Heather Nicole Bronson) belts out the spirited “Let’s Hear It for the Boy,” or when he passes along bizarre parental advice to transplant Ren (Dillon Giles) in “Mama Says.” Both Giles and Anne Lowell as rebellious preacher’s daughter Ariel excel at carrying the show, but these supporting players get the best songs. How about you?
Bruce: "Let's Hear It for the Boy"' and "Mama Says" were both really terrific ensemble numbers, with the blend of musical delights and comic moments you want out of a musical. It doesn't take long in Footloose to start hoping you'll see more of Bronson and Lentini, who play their "country" roles with charm and commitment. On a completely different note, the Act One trio "Learning to Be Silent," with Lowell and the show's two mothers — Ariel's mom Vi (Melissa Stone) and Ren's mom Ethel (Ashlee Reep) — was surprisingly beautiful, reminding me of a Stephen Sondheim confessional.
Edwin: That’s indeed a solid, unexpectedly poignant number. Being a teen-centric story, there aren’t a lot of well-developed adult roles, but Stone’s stage presence stood out to me early on.
Bruce: She stole the show in last year’s The Full Monty, and she’s equally fine here.
Edwin: As the semi-conduit between the town of Bomont’s two factions, she consistently mines some fairly powerful emotions as she relates to the pro- and anti-dance sides’ arguments. And once Vi's husband Rev. Moore (Stone’s real-life partner Jeff Stone) goes from one-note villain to something more complex starting with the late Act One confessional “Heaven Help Me,” he too enriches the drama.
Bruce: Footloose was a pretty silly movie — a whole film about a teenager fighting a town ordinance against dancing? — but besides a killer soundtrack by lyricist Dean Pitchford and a variety of collaborators (recreated here onstage), it had John Lithgow as the preacher, who brought a credible complexity to the teens' antagonist, and Jeff Stone does the same, although with a harder edge that works well in the show. Similarly, Dillon Giles reimagines Ren, the Kevin Bacon role, as a kind of goofy, accidental rebel closer to the young, devil-may-care John Belushi than to Bacon's pensive loner. The pivotal Act Two scene between Ren and the Reverend brings out the best of both actors.
Edwin: It’s a pleasure seeing both men dig deep and show their respective ranges. For the most part, though, it seems like we’re highlighting moments from the show’s second act. What aspects about the opening half left you unfulfilled?
Bruce: Well, we can't ignore the problems with the set changes. Jill Summers' ambitious, good-looking mobile two-piece backdrop with rotating halves just wasn't working smoothly on opening night. I hope that will be fixed for the rest of the run, but the decision to have the set changes happen in full view, rather than behind a curtain, still seems odd. It really distracts the audience from the performances at key moments, despite lighting designer Rob Bowen's best efforts to redirect our attention.
Edwin: I unfortunately agree about the set changes. Something was clearly amiss for our performance, with stagehands occasionally visible and the intricate scenery taking its sweet time to inch into place. A curtain or more contrast in the lighting would seemingly do the trick, and the spotlight timing will also hopefully improve. I fully anticipate audiences of future shows won't encounter such rough patches.
Bruce: I also think some rough patches are built into director Jerry Crouch's concept for this show. One reason you pick a show like Footloose instead of, say, Company is to involve the greatest diversity of community members, from high school age kids to retirees. That means you're also going to have actors with wildly divergent levels of skill and experience sharing the stage. So the big numbers, like the opening title song, are going to be celebrations of that spectrum, with everyone contributing enthusiastically as best they can. There aren't any stumbles, and everyone has earned their spot, but polish is not the point.
Edwin: Agreed. Plus, a central point of the material is simply that everyone should be allowed to sing and dance, regardless of skill level. This is community theater, after all, and the range of talents Crouch corrals into a fairly cohesive whole is commendable. Having professionals behind the scenes as well as in the unseen pit orchestra, under the capable direction of Lynda Shuter, certainly helps, but there’s a lot to like onstage from this cast. What other standouts would you like to highlight before we wrap up?
Bruce: I have to give a shout out to actress Marisa Noelle, who was so wonderful as the lead in 9 to 5: The Musical last season and appears here in the supporting role of Betty Blast. Every moment she's onstage, especially singing and dancing, is a joy, and I hope ACT finds her another lead role soon. We should also acknowledge the hard work of choreographer Tina Pisano-Foor, in the numbers we've already highlighted as well as the fun "Holding Out for a Hero," "I'm Free," and others. Finally, I'd add that very title of Footloose calls for some fine footwork, and dance captain Jacob Walas delivers just that every time he shows up in one of the production numbers. Crouch knows where the ACT team's strengths lie, and he puts them front and center. Who else?
Edwin: In addition to Bronson’s Rusty, the rest her friend trio — Karyn Panek’s Wendy Jo and Emily McCurry’s Urleen — are a consistently welcome presence, whether getting soulful on the foreboding “Somebody’s Eyes,” cranking up the show's energy with the aforementioned “Hero,” or otherwise forwarding the action with their comments and insights. I’d be happy to see all of them in future ACT productions as well.
Footloose runs through March 3 at 7:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and at 2:30 p.m. Sundays, plus Thursday shows at 7:30 p.m. Feb. 21 and 28. For tickets and more information, visit ashevilletheatre.org, call 828-254-1320, or visit the box office at 35 E. Walnut St.
(Photo: Studio Misha Photography/Courtesy of Asheville Community Theatre)