Review: ‘Broadway Center Stage: Footloose’ at The Kennedy Center

Footloose, the 1984 movie starring everybody’s friend, Kevin Bacon, was a hit for many reasons, but one stood out over the others: dancing means life, and dancing gives meaning to life. This semi-staged production of Footloose at the Kennedy Center’s Broadway Center Stage infuses the audience with life across the board.

J. Quinton Johnson as Ren McCormack in The Kennedy Center's Broadway Center Stage production of 'Footloose.' Photo by Jeremy Daniel.
J. Quinton Johnson as Ren McCormack in The Kennedy Center’s Broadway Center Stage production of ‘Footloose.’ Photo by Jeremy Daniel.

For those who have been deprived of true joy, Footloose is the story of Ren McCormack (J. Quinton Johnson, who carries this show with incredible energy, likability and body control), a Chicago kid who moves with his now-single mother Ethel McCormack (multiple Tony Award nominee Judy Kuhn) to the small town of Beaumont to live with his aunt and uncle. He stumbles upon a town that has made dancing illegal, stemming from a terrible accident years earlier in which four teenagers died after attending a dance. Ren, refusing to accept living amongst other caged butterflies, fights the town clergy and lawmakers to revoke this law.

This 1998 production, revived and revised by then and now director Walter Bobbie and original screenplay author Dean Pitchford, makes a comeback at the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theatre as the season opener for Broadway Center Stage, a Kennedy Center–produced series of musicals in semi-staged concert form designed to give Broadway shows tech rehearsals and early performances before heading back to NYC. Actors are seen holding scripts, either for themselves or to be passed to other actors mid-scene. This cast handles this seamlessly, with scripts sometimes doubling as props.

The set consists of scaffolding with the band playing on the top level during the entire performance. There is nothing that occurs in the show that you cannot see as it is happening. Benches double as pillars, which double as tables, which double as church pews. This set has an industrial look with a perfect combination of simplicity and function. This set doesn’t need to be any more elaborate because the performers and musicians create all of the color you will need.

This is arguably the most dynamic ensemble cast this reviewer has seen in the years of writing in the Washington area. Each member of the ensemble has excitement, energy, color, humor, soul, and flair that make it as impossible to decide where to focus one’s attention as it would be in Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory. It would be excessive to call them all out individually while keeping the reader’s attention, so any member of the ensemble not mentioned here may assume that their names are in invisible ink.

The three main female ensemble members, Lena Owens as Wendy Jo, Nicole Vanessa Ortiz as Rusty, and Grace Slear as Urleen differ in color, size, style, vocal style, and attitude, while working together as if they were triplets in the womb. The supporting cast also features Joshua Logan Alexander (think William Zabka from The Karate Kid) as bad boy Chuck and Peter McPoland, who steals the show as Ren’s nerdy, awkward and totally adorable best friend Willard Hewitt. Spencer Liff’s choreography is dynamic and exciting, with each performer highlighted for their own special talents. It is clear that Liff choreographed with this cast in mind rather than applying a formulaic approach. For instance, Liff gives Johnson opportunities to shine with his jazz-hip hop style and physicality–choreography clearly not intended for someone who channels less Michael Jackson.

Isabelle McCalla as Ariel Moore and Michael Park as Reverend Shaw Moore in The Kennedy Center's Broadway Center Stage production of 'Footloose.' Photo by Jeremy Daniel.
Isabelle McCalla as Ariel Moore and Michael Park as Rev. Shaw Moore in The Kennedy Center’s Broadway Center Stage production of ‘Footloose.’ Photo by Jeremy Daniel.

The principals are phenomenal. Ariel Moore, portrayed with star power by Isabelle McCalla, is the rebellious daughter of Rev. Shaw Moore (Michael Park, with one of the most layered and nuanced performances in the production) and his dutifully sad wife Vi (Rebecca Luker, whose portrayal highlights the quiet inner strength of her character’s strategic subservience). McCalla is a powerhouse, belting “Holding Out For a Hero” like Bonnie Tyler and tenderly crooning with Ren in “Almost Paradise.” Her tiny frame stands in contrast to her huge stage presence. Expect to see McCalla accepting a Tony Award someday. Her chemistry with Johnson is crackling and believable, and their harmony on “Almost Paradise” is the stuff of teen love. Johnson and Kuhn are tender and believable as son and mother, and the trio of Kuhn, McCalla, and Luker singing “Learning to be Silent” is beautifully tragic.

Footloose features a score by Tom Snow and Dean Pitchford, with additional music by Eric Carmen, Sammy Hagar, Kenny Loggins, and Jim Steinman. The film’s soundtrack boasts hits such as  “Footloose,” “Let’s Hear it For the Boy,” “Almost Paradise,” and “Holding Out For a Hero,” and music director Sonny Paladino brings out the sweet spots in the actors’ vocals with each number.

Completing the creative team are set and projection designer Paul Tate dePoo III, costume designer David Woolard, lighting designer Cory Pattak and sound designer Jon Weston.

Broadway Center Stage at the Kennedy Center offers Washington, DC patrons a unique opportunity to see Broadway shows in their earliest stages. If Footloose is indicative of the rest of this season’s shows, Broadway Center Stage is the place to be this year.

Running Time: Approximately two hours and 15 minutes, including one 18-minute intermission.

Broadway Center Stage: Footloose plays through October 14, 2019, at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts Broadway Center Stage, 2700 F St NW, Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 467-4600 or (800) 444-1324, or go online.

Michael Mulheren, Coach Dunbar; Rema Webb, Lulu Warnicker/Eleanor Dunbar/Betty Blast

Ensemble: Brandon Burks, Claire Crause, Michele Lee, Jess LeProtto, Gregory Liles, Nick Martinez, Maximilian Sangerman, Jonathan Savage, Bethany Tesarck, Tiernan Tunnicliffe, Jamar Williams


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