The often fatal idea of casting minor celebrities in popular musicals proves Annabel Cartwright wrong with the UK tour of Footloose
The casting of minor celebrities in popular musicals has become common practice, broadening the appeal of theatrical productions to both regular theatregoers and theatre novices. Often this decision results in box office success, but uninspiring overall performances. Frankly, the marketing of the most recent tour of Footloose centred around the casting of ex-Pop Idol contestant, Gareth Gates. However this did not inspire an optimistic outlook on the production, although I did try to retain an open mind when taking my seat in the Palace Theatre in March.
Footloose is the story of a group of teenagers battling to change rules which prohibit dancing in the small American town, Bomont. Ren, a free-spirited and misunderstood young man moves to Bomont with his mother after his parents’ divorce and demonstrates to his new friends the importance of leaving the past behind, and moving with the times. The musical is interspersed with upbeat rock ‘n’ roll songs which had the audience dancing in their seats.
This production was incredibly enjoyable and successfully reversed my outlook on celebrity casting. Gareth Gates proved the sceptics wrong in his role as Ren’s loveable and dim-witted best friend, Willard. He acted with a perfect balance of humour and sensitivity, never over-playing the comic aspects of the role. The songs and dances were performed with expert skill and power, leaving spectators in fits of laughter and shouting for encores, which he generously provided.
The design by Sara Perks was clever and appropriate, giving an overall sense of the rural setting, while being easily adaptable for quick scene changes. The simplicity of the revolving scenery helped keep the audience submerged in the plot, creating a seamless flow between key moments in the story.
Unfortunately, the part of Ren was played by Luke Baker’s understudy, Thomas Cotran, on the press night, whose performance was disappointingly lacklustre. Cotran’s voice was often obscured by the accompanying instrumental music, something which could have been dismissed as a technical issue, rather than a lack of ability on the actor’s part, were it not for the perfect clarity with which each other cast member’s voice could be heard. The lyrics of the musical’s most famous songs, including the title song, were almost inaudible.
Footloose’s actor-musician cast was the element which really underpinned the success of the musical. The extremely skilled instrumentalists stood their ground, exuding energy and sheer enjoyment as they energetically danced around the stage. The use of actor-musicians in place of a band or orchestra gave the production an immersive feel, as the story and music worked in unison, neither distracting from the other.
The 2016 tour of Footloose might seem like a show meant for audiences of children and fans of the classic 80s film adaptation, however the remarkable performances of all involved, and attention to detail in the design aspects, make for a sophisticated and impressive performance which may be enjoyed by a diverse audience.