THERE was a time when Racky Plews’s touring production of Footloose The Muscal would have played the Grand Opera House, not York Theatre Royal, as indeed it did in May 2017 with Bradford’s Gareth Gates’s cowboy Willard as the star attraction.
Just as the Mischief’s brand of comic mayhem with a team of accident-prone Charlie Chaplins has moved from Cumberland Street (The Play That Goes Wrong, September 2021) to St Leonard’s Place (Magic Goes Wrong, April 26 to May 1), Footloose’s transfer is a sign of chief executive Tom Bird balancing the Theatre Royal’s obligations as a producing house with the need for commercial prudence after the triplet of Covid lockdowns.
Sure enough, Plews’s new production – “reworked with a new set, new costumes, the lot,” as Darren Day, one of two new star names, put it – was playing to a full stalls and dress circle at Wednesday’s performance. Box-office business has been brisk, driven by the industry’s time-honoured key ticket purchaser: women, especially for musical theatre.
Men, outnumbered as ever on Wednesday, nevertheless would have a fun time at this feelgood, then feelevenbetter show, delivered by Plews’s cast of actor-musicians with the pizzazz befitting Holding Out For A Hero, Let’s Hear It For The Boy and the title number.
Faithful to the 1984 teen movie, Footloose is the teen-rebel story of Ren McCormack (Joshua Hawkins), the high-school newcomer who has blown into Bible Belt Bomont from Chicago with mum Ethel (Geri Allen) after his father deserted them without explanation.
An innocent abroad, Ren is out of step with a stymied town that buckles the Bible belt on the tightest notch, the town council having banned dancing in the wake of four Bomont High pupils perishing in a drink-and-drug fuelled car accident.
In contrast with that tragedy’s fun-negating shadow, Dean Pitchford, Walter Bobbie and Tom Snow’s musical does indeed cut loose, demanding an exuberant, high-energy performance from start to finish.
Footloose is light, insubstantial, even a little daft, being a dance-filled musical about not being allowed to dance, but let’s not split hairs. Last time it felt dated too, but deliberately and knowingly Eighties in style, and that look is still there in Sara Perks’s designs and costumes, but so are tattoos galore and ripped jeans, along with a state-of the-art lighting design by Chris Davey.
What’s more, there is just enough of a sting in the tale of stultifying life in the WASP smalltown of Bomont, where the music died five years ago in this quiet Deep American South backwater.
Sunday’s earnest sermons by the anguished Reverend Shaw Moore (Darren Day) set the tone, having administered the dance ban after losing his son. Day, hair newly grey and goatee bearded, grey suit as buttoned up as Moore’s emotions, is the old hand among predominantly young players, and he brings gravitas to the heavyweight role.
He has one of the hit-filled show’s non-hits to navigate in Heaven Help Me, but does so, not once, but twice, with beautifully controlled singing, where less is Moore. Look out for his Elvis impersonation in Reverend Moore’s transitional moment: a lovely light touch.
Moore’s counterpoint is Hawkins’s appealing Ren, the clean-living, accidental rebel who breaks every Bomont taboo, complicating matters further by falling for Ariel (Lucy Munden), the preacher man’s equally rebellious poetess daughter, setting him on a collision course with college bad-lad Chuck (Tom Mussell).
Those of a certain age were excited that Day – who was called theatre royalty on television the other day – would be in the cast. Gen Z were far more excited at the presence of 2018 Dancing On Ice winner Jake Quickenden in the comedy role of hunky cowboy Willard Hewitt, the lovably hapless town hick.
Boy, he delivers, being delightfully dim in failing to read the endless advances of Oonagh Cox’s spunky Rusty and revelling in stripping off to his toned, tattooed torso in Holding Out For A Hero (recalling his time in The Dreamboys revue).
As for his singing, Quickenden nails the comedy number, Mama Says (You Can’t Back Down), one of the high points of Matt Cole’s exuberant choreography.
Hawkins’s Ren, Munden’s Ariel, Mussell’s Chuck, Cox’s Rusty, Samantha Richards’s Urleen, Jess Barker’s Wendy-Jo and the multi role-playing Geri Allen bring plenty to the party (or non-party, as the Reverend would prefer it).
Indeed, let’s hear it for all the boys and girls, as they sing, dance, play instruments and skilfully walk the tightrope between the serious and the tongue in cheek in their performances. Let’s hear it for the drummer too, Bob Carr, ever-present up top at the back, making everything stick and click.
Footloose and fancy free this weekend? This show is just the ticket for you.
Footloose, York Theatre Royal, 7.30pm tonight; 2.30pm, 7.30pm, tomorrow. Box office: 01904 623568 or at yorktheatreroyal.co.uk.