If you’re of a certain generation, they you are very familiar with the 1984 movie Footloose. Just the mention of the title immediately brings the film’s high-powered and iconic title song directly into your head (you gotta cut loose). Images of Kevin Bacon punchdancing and tumbling his way through a flour mill soar into your mind. It’s classic 80’s music video fun, so much so that in 1998, the film was adapted into a rockin’ stage musical.
I had seen the stage version once before, but my reaction was mixed. The dancing was fantastic, and of course the music from the movie brought back wonderful memories (Let’s hear it for the boy!), but most of the supplemental music kind of slid through one ear and out the other.
But that was in a huge auditorium. I was very lucky to get to see it again, this time in Mysterium Theater’s smaller, more intimate space. Footloose is very different when the anger, pain, and conflict that drives every character is plainly visible from the first note to the last. The musical format works especially well with this show because, as characters sing we get a window into their deepest thoughts, which helps us gain a better understanding of the complex motivations that drive their behavior. It’s easy to look at Rev. Moore as the “bad guy,” but the more we hear him sing about his theological and parental conflicts, the more we understand that he is just another misguided soul just trying to do what he believes is right.
In case you are unfamiliar with Footloose (hard to imagine, but I’m sure it happens), it is the story of city kid Ren McCormack who moves to the small town of Bomont to find that dancing and rock music are strictly prohibited by city ordinance. At the top of the town’s power structure sits Rev. Shaw Moore, who controls the city council with faith-inspired iron fist. Ren’s presence shakes up the town, and soon the local teens start a movement to hold a prom within the city limits, all while Ren falls in love with the preacher’s daughter. It’s Romeo and Juliet meets Rebel Without a Cause, set to pop rock.
It’s simplistic to boil Footloose down to a battle stupid country bumpkins puritanically fighting against change and anything that smacks of fun vs. good-looking, hormonal teenagers who need a trickster form the outside to come in and change the system. There’s more. It’s about repression and renewal. While we want to see the Reverend’s Christianity as the villain there’s more to it than that. His religion is not the problem; his own self-imposed, unrealistic expectations that he must control everyone in order to usher them into heaven are truly the issue.
It’s really about small-mindedness, the anxiety of change, and the need for all of us to search our beliefs honestly and make those painful decisions to recognize that sometimes, we are wrong. One look at the political world we live in today displays those themes in spades.
Mysterium’s production is full of some excellent talent. In the lead role of Ren, Edgar Torrens tears up the stage with his energy and honesty. He meets his match, though, with Meredith Culp’s glittering portrayal of Ren’s love interest, Ariel (the preacher’s daughter). Culp is a magnetic performer who easily accomplishes Ariel’s multiple levels of conflict and expressions of joy while layering on wonderful singing voice. The stage lights up when she walks on.
Ray Buffer is the central pin in this production in two ways. As the overly paternal Rev. Moore, Buffer delivers with his booming voice and his quiet, vulnerable strength. Buffer is also the show’s director, and in this capacity he has done a wonderful job of staging a big musical in to a small space.
Another strong performance is turned in by Andreas Pantazis as Ren’s friend Willard. At first, Pantazis seems to be portraying just another country hick, but his performance becomes a metaphor for the town’s growth as Willard slowly opens up and blossoms as repression is removed and he is allowed to flower into his full self. This Willard truly displays his transformation in Pantazis’ carefree and animated rendition of “Mama Says.”
Also impressive are Ariel’s three girlfriends, Rusty (Emily Curington), Wendy Jo (Danielle Goupille), and Urleen (Ariel Infante). The three act as a sort of Greek chorus, narrating through song and participating in the action. Their presence is particularly keenly felt in the number “Somebody’s Eyes,” in which they explore the frustration of small town life, where each action you take is catalogued and gossip powers the cogs of existence. It’s hard to “cut loose” when everything mistake you make is held against you.
Mysterium’s production is both high energy fun, but it also explores some of the deeper layers at work within the town of Bomont. It sympathetically emphasizes the very real concerns of responsible parenting while also celebrating youth and joy. And if you come from the 80’s, it’s really hard not to sing along.
IF YOU GO:
WHAT: Footloose, The Musical
WHERE: Mysterium Theater
311 Euclid St.
La Habra, CA 90631
WHEN: Thursdays – Sundays through May 29
8:00 pm; Saturday and Sunday matinees at 4:00 pm
COST: $15-$30 in advance, $30 at the door