Let’s hear it for Footloose — not the new musical version that just opened on Broadway, but the hit 1984 movie starring Kevin Bacon as a hearty young rabblerouser who helps heal a small town paralyzed by grief after losing four of its teenagers in an auto accident. John Lithgow’s willful minister rules the town, which has dealt with the teens’ deaths by pretty much outlawing fun, including dancing. As the young punk, Bacon touches the heart of the preacher, falls in love with the old man’s daughter, and convinces the citizens that it’s time, once again, to dance. The movie — with a killer soundtrack featuring ”Let’s Hear It for the Boy” and Kenny Loggins’ jumpy title song, as well as ”Almost Paradise” — touched a generation who came of age during the conservative Reagan era. It particularly spoke to me, since in 1984 I was a freshman at Baylor University in Waco, Tex., a private Baptist bastion where dancing was, indeed, banned on campus. (Popular alternatives included booze and sex.)
Despite its resonance at the time, Footloose the movie isn’t exactly sacred, don’t-mess-with-it material. And bringing it into the 1990s on Broadway is, in theory, an interesting proposition. Take the movie’s timeless theme — an outsider bucking the system — and update it to reflect the changes in our culture and our youth. That’s not what’s happened, however. Watching this all-too-faithful adaptation of Footloose, which is about as relevant as a Welcome Back, Kotter rerun and scrubbed as clean as a Disney World show, you get the feeling that whoever tried to relocate it to 1998 hasn’t gotten out much in the last 14 years. The soundtrack has been left intact, but augmented by nine new songs by Tom Snow and lyricist Dean Pitchford (who wrote the movie’s screenplay). It’s undistinguished soft rock for the most part, except for one rap number that includes the unfortunate lyrics ”party in your pants.” The cast sports ’90s hairdos, but the era blurs when youngsters in Diesel jeans talk about leaving town on a train. Who takes the train?
With a couple of notable exceptions (it would be mean to name them) the mostly young cast are fine, a couple of them so fine that you wish they were doing Rent. Stacy Francis belts out a delicious rendition of ”Let’s Hear It for the Boy,” and Jeremy Kushnier turns the Kevin Bacon role into a singing-dancing, hand-that-man-a-Tony tour de force. But other members of the creative team succeed only at hiding their talents under a bushel. Costume designer Toni-Leslie James puts the leading man in a supple leather jacket and hip retro shirts, which render him less like a lower-middle-class rebel and more like a Barneys customer. The great Dee Hoty is wasted in the role of the preacher’s wife. Choreographer A.C. Ciulla, a music-video maestro apparently hired for his hip factor, is guilty of gross nondelivery. The sets, or lack thereof, are by John Lee Beatty, whose talents are so underused that I got excited when the pews rolled on stage. (Oh, good! The pews! Something to look at!)
No one’s hiding talent more diligently than director Walter Bobbie, who coadapted Footloose along with Pitchford. Bobbie’s the highly regarded Broadway veteran responsible for the insanely entertaining and artful revival of Chicago, so I’m desperate to cut him some slack; let it be known that at least Footloose goes by quickly and it’s peppy as hell. And despite the show’s numerous missteps, it does get to my Texas roots. It’s set in Bomont (as in Beaumont, Tex.), and one number even takes place in Baylor County. I’m inclined to give the show the benefit of a teeny-weeny doubt: Maybe somewhere it will resonate. Maybe, in 1998, there’s a small town where the local preacher rules, kids are forbidden to dance, and no one’s told the ACLU — but not likely. Even at Baylor University, I hear, the Baptists are now free to boogie. (TM) D+