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Saturday, August 20, 2011

My Saturday Suggestion: Go Cut "Footloose"

Tri-State Theater is really my pal Chuck Minsker’s territory, so I hope he’ll forgive this intrusion to tell you about the great production I saw Friday night…

The Paramount Players, the community theater group of the Paramount Arts Center in Ashland, continues to amaze me with the quality of its productions. The latest example is “Footloose: The Musical.”

For those of you who don’t know, “Footloose” tells the story of Ren McCormack and his mother, Ethel, who leave Chicago to move to the small town of Beaumont, where dancing is outlawed. Ren ends up fighting the town and its powerful spiritual leader, Reverend Shaw Moore, when he tries to get the law changed. And of course, there’s the matter of Ren falling for the reverend’s troublemaking daughter, Ariel.

I have seen the movie “Footloose” several times and I am familiar with all the hit songs from its soundtrack, but I had never seen the musical so I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. There was a group of people in the packed house Friday night that snickered every time the cast started singing one of the familiar songs. I guess they thought their use was silly, but I thought they were worked in very well. It was the new songs that didn’t work quite as well.

But more on that in a minute. Let me first focus on this specific production. Director Melanie Sweeney has once again put together a solid cast filled with amazing local talent. Clay McKnight hits all the right notes—and moves—as Ren and he shares great chemistry with Samantha Bibbey, who plays Ariel. The pair’s rendition of “Almost Paradise” is gorgeous. Plus, Bibbey really conveys all of Ariel’s different sides, something I’ve always thought Lori Singer didn’t really do in the movie.

But as good as they both are—and they both are very good—they get a lot of their scenes stolen right out from under them by Steve Dyer as Ren’s dancing challenged friend, Willard and Abbie Emmons as Ariel’s friend, Rusty. Of course, sidekicks usually do get the best lines. And in this one, Rusty gets some of the best songs too (including “Let’s Hear It for the Boy”).

The ensemble was great as well with some very talented dancers, including the always sparkling Hannah Lutz as Urleen, one of Ariel’s friends. And having seen him in two productions now, I’m always impressed with the talent of Rick Payne. He beautifully plays the thankless role of Chuck Cranston, Ariel’s abusive boyfriend. In fact, he’s so good, it’s almost hard to hate Chuck…almost.

But real kudos go to Josh Jannotta, who plays the show’s other bad guy, Reverend Moore. Unfortunately, the songs written for the reverend are not quite as strong as those for the other characters, but Jannotta makes them work anyway. His song near the end of the show, “I Confess,” is a real tour de force and Jannotta wrings every ounce of emotion out of it he can. It’s the most I’ve ever sympathized with Reverend Moore in all the times I’ve seen this story.

Sweeney’s choreography is also fantastic and the singing performances were all solid (Amber Ferguson is the musical director.), backed by a great orchestra led by the incredibly talented Mark Smith. And the sets, designed by TSHD Architects and William Ferguson are beautiful.

Now, back to the show itself. The first act is incredible, concluding with an amazing melding of “I’m Free” (in perfect context) and the new song, “Heaven Help Me.” I wanted to stand up and cheer when the curtain came down for intermission. The fun continued as the second act opened with “Let’s Hear It for the Boy,” but then it started to drag just a little. I could actually hear the audience wondering how long before we would hear “Footloose” again. I also didn’t care for the way the town council scene was set to music. But those feelings are not at all a reflection of the way the cast performed those scenes because they were great throughout.

And once the cast kicks off their Sunday shoes for the finale, you forget all about any problems and leave the theater dancing and singing.

There are two more times to see the show Saturday at 3 p.m. and 8 p.m. and if you like fun musical theater, I strongly suggest you go. Tickets are $20 and are available at the Box Office, but be sure to give yourself enough time to stand in line.

I’m already looking forward to what the Paramount Players will do next…

By the way, when you’re at the show, be sure to stop by my friend Kelli’s Sweet & Sassy Treats table and pick up some unbelievable fresh spun cotton candy or some of Kelli’s famous cake pops. That way you can cut footloose and satisfy your sweet tooth at the same time…

Photo Credit: Courtesy of Paramount Arts Center