To the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds for the opening night of Footloose performed by the Irving Stage Company.
Those who know this 1998 toe-tapper adapted from a 1984 dance movie will be familiar with the big numbers "Footloose" "Holding Out for a Hero" and "Let's Hear it for the Boy". The company has to get the energy up on these because they are the feel-good spine of the story which holds against the very dark background of mourning, fear, and entanglement with a violent young man.
As it was opening night the company was coltish, wobbly on its legs to start with, so it was with great pleasure that the audience could see them hitting their stride as the company orchestra, directed by Mark Jefferson, went through the score faultlessly, sweeping them along. During 'Holding Out for a Hero' the company began to relax and swing in to it. By 'Let's Hear it for the Boy' they were a unified force on the stage.
The glossy programme (designer Camille Berriman) with thoughtful notes recounts that the show is animated by the fact that this really happened; a tiny town in Oklahoma had banned dancing and a youth there challenged the edict and won. The writer and composer Dean Pritchford then built a classic conflict and resolution plot around that. It isn't candyfloss - there's a proper play in there and Shakespeare would recognise it.
The strength of the plot makes great demands on performers. There is only one unambiguously bad character, all the rest are very good people but mistaken. This is a greater test of acting ability that goodies and baddies; the players have to hold our sympathy especially when they are wrong. The toughest job on stage is managed by Daniel Bunker as the middle-aged Reverend Shaw Moore, doubly difficult where the musical is performed in a country where the audience may not understand American reverence for Christianity. Bunker carries it superbly as he has to confess to the audience how close he is to breakdown when his whole life is built on his ability to be strong for other people.
Brian Carmack, who really is from Chicago, plays the outsider Ren McCormack, moved from Chicago to a very small town indeed, one even smaller than Bury St Edmunds. He provides a tuning-fork for the company; without this there is a danger of a rag-bag of cod-American impersonation. Accent coach Darian Vomund orchestrated the speaking voices convincingly and exploited Carmack's voice to create a an audible difference between the out-of-towners and the sharply-spoken city boy.
Carmack and Josie May Harrington as Ariel Moore have to lead the youth side of the story. They must capture how dangerously naive the highschoolers are. This is tricky for director Sian Couture to pitch correctly as it can all go 'a bit Operation Yewtree'. Although the Ariel Moore character can be assumed to be over the age of consent, she's close to it and has tangled herself up in to an exploitative and abusive relationship with a Chuck Cranston, played by Ben Child.
Within the story it is made clear that Cranston is a youth but Ben Child gives him a harder edge which is more credible in its manipulation. Cranston pretends to be concerned for Ariel's welfare but he knows what he is doing when he goes out of his way to tell the Reverend Moore that his daughter has lied to her parents. His aim is to inflict as much damage as possible on the family out of pure spite, particularly towards the reverend's grieving wife, played by Angela Grant.
The sub-plot of Rusty and Willard, played by Serena Grant and Ben Musgrove, requires that both of them bring an audience to its feet, which they do. Willard's character arc is also demanding. Musgrove has to persuade us he can go from tongue-tied country boy to the spinner of shrewd folk wisdom. He does this via the superb number 'Mama says', full of glorious one-liners set in a slapstick routine. Luckily it has a short reprise after the audience has finished clapping - we could easily stand see the whole thing again, particularly the line "Mama says the things you believe are the only things you really own". Discuss.
Keeping the stage relatively bare and moving a few props and a little scaffolding, the sets were created quickly by lighting so that the action kept moving. Special congratulations for choreography by Sian Couture and Christine Glancy. Inspired use of Achy Breaky Heart resolves the stage in to waves of line-dancing which perfectly express the universal appeal of dance.
Footloose is on until 27 April, so get in quickly. Don't forget your check shirt and cowboy hat.