‘Flashdance-The Musical’ at The Kennedy Center by John Harding

In the Flashdance smackdown between fresh new show tunes and nostalgia-laden 1980s soundtrack hits, the title decision at The Kennedy Center isn’t even close. Showtunes lose the match, although the theater-goer emerges the winner.

It has been 65 years since Mary Martin delighted Broadway every night when she “washed that man right out of her hair” on stage in South Pacific. Today, the young star of Flashdance — The Musical gets a full body soaking in each performance — and let me add quickly, if her man has gotten under her skin, patrons in the front rows should be the first to spot the lump.

Jillian Mueller (Alex Owens) and Matthew Hydzik (Nick Hurley). Photo by Jeremy Daniel.
Jillian Mueller (Alex Owens) and Matthew Hydzik (Nick Hurley). Photo by Jeremy Daniel.

Pint-sized powerhouse Jillian Mueller is the body in question at the Eisenhower Theater. And as far as special effects on stage go, I’ll take her water-dousing Act I finale here over falling chandeliers and helicopters any night of the week.

Whatever else can be said about this latest transplant of popular movie to legitimate stage, it places a huge demand on its female lead. As the welder-dancer with dreams of remaking ballet in her own image, Alex Owens presents a nearly impossible challenge for a performer: How to dance like a “Maniac,” sing like a dynamo, and still knock some eyes out wearing abbreviated work-out thongs.

Jillian Mueller succeeds in all departments, and does some bravura acting, besides. When not joshing around with her fellow steeltown workers or shooting the breeze with the dance gals over at Harry’s, Mueller comes across like a bundle of blue-collar spunk, whether standing up to a sleazy rival strip club owner or just facing down the new pretty-boy boss at the factory.

Mueller refuses to stop short of the winner’s circle, and she almost singlehandedly carries the whole show there with her. On opening night, it was her sensational soul-baring solo number “Let Go” followed by her dance academy audition piece set to “What a Feeling” that more than anything accounted for the standing ovation during curtain calls at the Eisenhower.

That’s not to take away anything from the rest of the cast. It’s a large company and the level of talent is stratospheric almost across-the-board. But when it comes to the luck of the draw, none of their parts is near the equal of Mueller’s.

Corey Mach plays the new boss in town, and he has a wonderful voice and masculine presence. But nothing that writers Tom Hedley and Robert Cary give him to do goes very far to earn our affection. He even has to sing a whiney song about the misfortune of coming from a privileged background. Eww.

In a book with too many subplots, Gina Claire Mason and David R. Gordon hit some nice notes as Gloria and Jimmy, the star-tossed lovebirds who hardly figure in the main story at all.

Jo Ann Cunningham does a solid acting turn as Hannah, Alex’s aging ballet coach and personal muse; and Dequina Moore as Kiki offers a genuine R&B turn with her spotlight solo of “Manhunt,” stopping the show cold (or hot, in this case).

By contrast, most of the new songs by Robbie Roth and Robert Cary are serviceable though seldom memorable, and a few are even a-few-too-many. But then comes a “flash” from the past, and the cast and audience share the tingle of a great live concert with the added bonus of top-notch dancing and all-out theatrical wizardry.

The rear projection effects by Peter Nigrini are among the best-integrated I’ve ever seen, providing counterpoint animation for the dancers and Busby Berkeley-esque background patterns that connect past showbiz traditions with the MTV video era.

Jillian Mueller (Alex Owens). Photo by Jeremy Daniel.
Jillian Mueller (Alex Owens). Photo by Jeremy Daniel.

The interlocking set changes by Scenic Designer Klara Zieglerova are ingenius, giving the on-stage shifts in setting a cinematic grace. Sound Designers John Shivers and David Partridge also play a key role in the evening’s success, delivering up all the lyrics and never stinting on the pulsating backbeats of Jason Howland’s musical arrangements.

Next stop is Las Vegas for this national touring company. But don’t gamble on a return visit. Place your bets on today’s rising star Jillian Mueller and the current cast for a surefire, upbeat blast from the past.

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Running Time: Approximately two hours and 30 minutes, plus one intermission.

Flashdance — The Musical plays through January 19, 2014 at The Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater-2700 F Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office (202) 467-4600, or purchase them online.

Flashdance-The Musical‘s website.



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