ANOTHER popular film makes its way to the stage, with another chance to hear some classic songs performed live, and to experience the story of the celluloid in real life action; this time it is the 1984 film Footloose, which became a stage musical in 1998 and tells the story of a young man, Ren, moving from city to small town Bomont to find that rock and roll music and dancing have been banned there. In this case there is another exciting aspect to the show – there is no band, or at least, not a separate one, for this is an actor-musician show, where the cast not only sing and dance their way through the action but also play every piece of music live on stage, with many of them playing many instruments.
I am a big fan of actor-musicianship, from Return to the Forbidden Planet in the late 1980s to the recent sell-out production of Singin’ In The Rain at Salisbury Playhouse, and I also quite like a good rock anthem, so having never seen the original film of Footloose I was looking forward to a nostalgic evening with a great story at the Hippodrome, and I was not disappointed, right from the beginning of the show, when the title track, a huge hit in the 80s, is performed as a fully staged production number with every member of this multi-talented cast singing, playing and dancing to the limit. The only cast member to stay at his instrument throughout the show is Musical Director and virtuoso drummer David Keech, leading the band from within his plastic enclosure high on stage, but even he is very much part of the action.
There are a couple of famous names in the show, but even they are as much a part of the team as the rest of the cast: Maureen Nolan is scheduled to play the reverend’s wife Vi, but was unwell this evening, and Gareth Gates is a pleasant surprise in the delightfully comic role of Willard, charming us all in and out of his dungarees, with a ripped body and a voice that has matured well since his Pop Idol days 14 years ago. He brings a vulnerable delicacy yet great style to Mama Says, and his attempts to learn to dance are very well observed.
Hannah Price as Ariel and Luke Baker as Ren are the young lead actors, and each of them is superb, full of energy, with great voices, slick dance moves and good characterisation. Their duet Almost Paradise showed just how well cast they are, with voices intermingling and harmonising so cleverly. I have not seen the film, but my companion, work colleague Lucy, is a big fan, so I was interested to hear that she thought the show worked as well on stage as on screen, in different ways, but maintaining much of the message, emotion and music, whilst adding extra songs and underscoring to make it a stage musical in its own right.
It is great to see songs from the past that are mainly known from local radio, or local pantomimes, given the big show treatment, with Holding On For a Hero and Let’s Hear it for the Boy two of my favourites tonight, but it is also god to hear the slower, more contemplative numbers, such as Learning to be Silent and Can You Find it in Your Heart, giving Nolan’s understudy this evening, Lauren Storer, the chance to shine, with beautiful harmonies in the former and full of genuine emotion in the latter. Nigel Lister brings great authority to the role of her husband, the Reverend who has banned dancing from the town after their son was killed in a road accident fueled by rock music and debauchery, and he gives in sensitively to create the happy ending the show requires, even joining the band on lead guitar.
Some actors shine, for a song or two at a time, but as is often the case with these major tours there are no real stars – the show lives or dies based on the quality of the ensemble as a whole, this show is very much alive, from line-dancing cowboys to saxophonists on roller skates. The finale alone would tire most performers, but not the wonderful cast of Footloose.
Footnote: This touring production also stops at Salisbury Playhouse from 27th September until 1st October.