There aren’t many shows that could get the entire audience on their feet, clapping and dancing for the final ten minutes – but Footloose did, and the adrenaline high lasted long after leaving the theatre.
Footloose is an iconic tale, of a Boston boy arriving in a small town where it is illegal to dance due to a tragic accident years before. Dance is used as a form of rebellion throughout the Kevin Bacon original, but in this musical adaptation of Footloose the music adds another layer to the subversion of the rules, and continually demonstrates the joy and community to be found in dance and music.
Musicals are normally all-singing and all-dancing affairs, but Footloose took it to a new level, from the initial pre-show announcement that the actors would be playing all their own instruments, the talent did not stop. Saxophones, clarinets, flutes, guitars, bass, drums and piano were all played by the cast on stage, often whilst simultaneously dancing – and at one point whilst jumping over a skipping rope!
You might think that prioritising musicality would mean weakness in the singing or acting ability of the cast, but all the performances were incredible. Even the American accents, which I often find quite jarring were brilliant.
Footloose is one of my go-to serotonin-boosting films, so I was going into the Opera House with high expectations, expecting that it was unlikely to fulfil them. But the musical perfectly captured the feel of the films, with nods to all the iconic moments, such as Ren getting pulled over for his music being too loud, and Ariel being accidentally caught dancing at the drive-in by her father.
The script, and Joshua Hawkins’ (Ren McCormack) delivery perfectly captured the sarcastic Boston humour of the well-loved character, genuinely making us laugh out loud on a number of occasions. Even the new additions to the play, such as Ren working as a roller-skating waiter at the diner, which on paper sounds ridiculous, blended seamlessly with the rest of the character. This scene served to develop Ren and Willard’s friendship rather than being purely played for slapstick laughs.
The set was absolutely incredible, with smooth and creative transitions – at one point a shower cublicle, turned and became lockers, and then in the next turn a steering wheel was picked up and it was then a car. In another scene a skipping rope was turned into a boxing ring.
This creativity meant that the musical was not limited by a lack of locations, which often film to theatre adaptations are, and the sets were also used to convey emotions effectively – with the cramped Ariel’s house set acting as an oppressive contrast to the freedom of the spacious diner and trainline.
The set changes were largely done by the cast, which tied into the self-aware comedic style, particularly in one the highlights of the first half ‘Holding out for a hero’. This was joyous in all it’s knowing humour, with vibrant rainbow lighting, a fan being placed at the front of the stage for a dramatic solo from Ariel, Ren running around with a smoke machine, and even Jake Quickenden (Dancing on Ice) being stripped down to his gold boxers!
But the first half also found strength in the quieter moments, with ‘Learning to be silent’ a powerful song performed by the two mothers and Ariel about navigating the men in their community, hinting at the religious undertones of the gender divide.
The reprise of ‘Somebody’s Eyes’ was used cleverly to indicate that Ren was always being watched, without feeling overdone as is often the case in musicals.
And Tom Mussell’s saxophone skills were incredible, although it did take away from the cruel and intimidating side of Chuck’s character as I couldn’t help thinking of Lisa Simpson everytime he started playing!
The final song before the interval, ’I’m Free’ was one of the weaker numbers, which was a shame as it is a key turning point in the plot – they are going to fight for their right to dance. But the basketball dance routines and cheerleader costumes, meant it was more reminiscent of High School Musical than Footloose and the sheer athleticism on stage – skipping, bouncing balls, boxing – meant the singing was less powerful than I had come to expect of the show.
Whilst the first half was extremely good fun, the plot – particularly the key explanation as to why they can’t dance and the use of the diner for underground dances – wasn’t explained that well. As an avid Footloose fan I didn’t need it, and I’m sure that was the case for a lot of the audience, but my friend who hadn’t seen the film said she ended up relying on the plot synopsis she’d read beforehand. The first half was very much driven by the songs, but in the initial few numbers the sound mixing was a bit off, making it hard to hear the lyrics over the instruments, which may have contributed to the early plot confusion.
The second half was a lot more plot-heavy, introducing (spoiler) Bobby’s death, and developing the conflict between Ariel and her father. However, these seemingly emotional scenes didn’t really hit home, serving more to move along the plot than to achieve an emotional response from the audience. I almost didn’t notice Reverend Moore slapping Ariel, which is such a shocking moment in the film.
But honestly, no-one’s going to watch Footloose at Manchester Opera House for the hard-hitting emotional drama, and in the upbeat scenes, I couldn’t stop smiling. One of my favourite parts of the film is Willard’s learning to dance montage, so when ‘Let’s hear it for the boy’ started to play I was delighted.
The film montage incorporates a huge variety of sets to indicate time passing, but on stage that wasn’t possible. But with nods to the original dance moves, and Rusty singing – which made a great addition – the learning process was so well acted, that the crowd were cheering for Willard’s success at the end of the song, like it was hard-earned over months, not taking just 3 minutes.
Footloose was the perfect mix of new and original, and when it reached its final rendition of ‘Footloose’ the audience were clapping along long before they were asked to be on their feet. It was like the joy of Bomont’s seniors being able to dance translated into the audience, as they danced along to the final megamix (which would have gone down a storm in the Vic on a Friday night). For once when they shouted, “do you want more?” I wasn’t silently thinking “no please stop now”, and was actually disappointed when it ended. I left the theatre asking “how is this not more famous?!”
Bomont’s dancing again, and this Wednesday the Opera House was dancing along with it.
Footloose plays at Manchester Opera House until 5th March, before continuing it’s UK tour until the end of August. You can get your tickets here.
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