Review: Catch a Case of Dance Fever at BDT Stage's Footloose

There actually was a time when rock and roll and the happy gyrations of teens dancing to the music were considered sinful and a sure precursor to every kind of sleazy and drug-hazed sex, a time when respectable parents were so nervous about Elvis Presley’s hip thrusts and controversy ran so high that censors insisted that Presley only be filmed from the waist up on The Ed Sullivan Show. But that was a long, long time ago, and the plot of Footloose — both the 1984 movie and Footloose, the 1998 musical now being presented by BDT Stage — feels pretty dated. And this even though the story of Bomont, Georgia, a town where dancing is forbidden, is based on reality, inspired by the first-ever prom held in Elmore City, Oklahoma, in 1980: Dancing had been prohibited there since the town’s incorporation in 1898, and half the kids attending the prom didn’t even know how to hoof it.

Ren, a Chicago teenager who loves to dance, relocates to this rural backwater with his mother after his father abandons them both. Miserable and out of place, he’s horrified to find out that he’s not allowed to dance; dancing has been forbidden ever since four drunk and stoned teenagers died driving home from a dance a few years before. Of course there’s a fire-and-brimstone minister, Reverend Shaw Moore, and of course he has a lovely and rebellious daughter, Ariel, who longs to escape the place. The story is full of stereotypes and told in a kind of shorthand. Ariel has a trailer-dwelling boyfriend (why couldn’t he have been the town rich kid?), Chuck Cranston, who hits her, and also a lusty, fun-loving and fun-starved girlfriend, Rusty (a beautifully full-throated performance by Satya Jnani Chavez). Rusty likes farm boy Willard, who can’t dance a lick. Every adult in the place is a stiff-necked prude except for Moore’s wise wife, Vi, and Ren’s compassionate mom, Ethel. Nothing really gets explored beyond the superficial. Ariel expresses her frustration by going to a secret place beneath the train tracks and howling to the sound of the train’s horn; she eventually shows this secret place to Ren. Abusive Cranston is never confronted, but just fades away. With Ren’s help, Willard transforms miraculously from a clumsy oaf into a limber hip swinger, without the audience ever seeing the transformative process. No one can possibly doubt that the Reverend will relent before the show’s end and that Ren will have everyone dancing like crazy.

This production has a few glitches. The sound needs to be fine-tuned; it’s often distractingly loud. While Jean-Luc Cavner, who plays Ren, is charming and appropriately light on his feet, he lacks the dangerous, seductive cool that could convince a group of highly conventional kids to break with tradition, challenge authority and kick off their Sunday shoes. Still, there are some terrific moments, as when Seles VanHuss, clad in her wonderful red boots as Ariel (costumer Linda Morken really knows how to make actors look great!) kicks up the energy a dozen notches with “Holding Out for a Hero” or Alicia King as Vi and Joannie Brosseau’s Ethel sing the wistful “Learning to be Silent” together. And those are only two of a slew of great songs: “Footloose,” “Let’s Hear It for the Boy,” “Mama Says,” “Almost Paradise,” “Somebody’s Eyes.” There’s also one transcendent and astonishing moment: when Rae Leigh Case, tiny, lithe and almost impossibly strong, twirls dizzyingly on a rope above our heads. Director/choreographer Matthew D. Peters has assembled a large, lively and attractive cast, and the dancing goes on almost nonstop.

And yes, you can see why the town succumbs: Music and dance are uniquely seductive, having been at the core of what it means to be human since as far back as paleoanthropologists can glimpse; they represent the primal draw that makes us such suckers for flashmob videos that begin with a solitary figure dancing and end with dozens of people moving together as one. 

Footloose, presented by BDT Stage through September 3, 5501 Arapahoe Avenue, Boulder, 303-449-6000,
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Juliet Wittman is an investigative reporter and critic with a passion for theater, literature, social justice and food. She has reviewed theater for Westword for over a decade; for many years, she also reviewed memoirs for the Washington Post. She has won several journalism awards and published essays and short stories in literary magazines. Her novel, Stocker's Kitchen, can be obtained at select local bookstores and on Amazon.
Contact: Juliet Wittman