Footloose Review: A Triumphant Farewell at The John L. Haar Theatre

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Wrapped in a charged presentation of a musical theatre classic, Footloose, is the history of decades of MacEwan University theatre arts.

And while each performer’s voice may not hold a weighty, well-produced presence, the energy of their performance culminates in another triumphant night for the final season at the John L. Haar Theatre.

Dave Horak’s direction of the Dean Pitchford-written stage adaptation follows city-boy Ren McCormack’s (Cameron Chapman) move to a ’80s era rural town where denim, plaid, bloomers and pantsuits are the norm, and dancing is banned by law.

Fittingly, body language is key to the successes of this production. From the moment we first see the town reverend’s daughter, Ariel (Danica Kobayashi), and her posse fronting a straight-back, heels-together, goody-two-shoes demeanour, we know something is off. When reverend Shaw (Benjamin Oomen) walks away and we see them relax cathartically, it’s like the downslope of a rollercoaster for the audience, buckled-in for the pleasant trajectory of the show.

The supporting cast builds a living ambiance for each scene

The supporting cast builds a living ambiance for each scene well. Some of their choreography isn’t always in sync (a couple arms swinging out of turn here, or a mistimed boxstep there), but they perform with as much gusto as the main cast, perhaps most notably in the supporting trio behind Ren and his new friend Willard (Malachi Wilkiins) in “Mamma Says.” The roller coaster rolls along smoothly thanks to them.

Impressively, given the theatre’s size, Guido Tondino’s set design is also like a coaster. Black iron rails make up a background bridge, often framed with contextual backdrop slide-ins, and nine-foot tall rolling partitions with attached steps help us travel everywhere from the reverend’s dinner table, to a high school hallway as fast as the music carries us.

Only in a later duet between Ren and Ariel did part of the set design (twin projectors printing the night sky on the back wall) stand out negatively. The follow spotlights tracking the couple’s dramatic first kiss casts their shadow onto the stars. It’s a distracting inconsistency that’s unlike the rest of the production’s successfully invisible lighting design by Scott Peters.

Some of the audio issues that have plagued past MacEwan theatrical productions resurface here, too. The audio mix isn’t forgiving of the varying vocal strengths of the ensemble, and microphones are often turned on too late, or off too soon, causing us to miss the tips and tails of dialogue.

Michaela Demeo stars in the best musical solo of night

This might be more forgiving in a performance with clear separation between musical numbers and dramatic conversations, but amidst the roiling fluidity of Footloose’s eight to 13-minute songs that are filled with heartfelt exposition, a dead mic often leaves lines buried by the rocking orchestra.

Early on, Ariel’s performance combined with these audio problems is worrisome. Her dancing in “The Girl Gets Around” is stiff, and her eyes flit about in search of her next mark. She could be attempting to show distaste for the loveably crass Chuck Cranston (Ethan Snowden), but she comes across as an detached performer that still needs to warm up. It’s not until later in the show that the emotion of the music fully reaches her eyes.

Similarly, after some nasally tendencies in her friend Rusty’s (Rachel Matichuck) contribution to the early numbers, she and Willard go on to steal the show in “Let’s Hear It for the Boy.”

Michaela Demeo as Ariel’s mother, Vi, also stands out with the best musical solo of night in “Can You Find it in Your Heart.” Oomen’s take on “Heaven Help Me” doesn’t come far behind, either.

The productions missteps are familiar and generally easily overlooked, especially when so many strong triple-threat performances are put on stage as the night goes on.

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