Transported back in time to the sleepy US Bible Belt town of Bomont in West Virginia where public dancing and rock music are outlawed, it can only mean Footloose: The Musical has arrived in Milton Keynes.
Starring former Pop Idol runner-up Gareth Gates and Maureen Nolan, best known as one of the five Nolan sisters, the show features several 1980s hits including Let’s Hear It For The Boy, Holding Out For A Hero and Almost Paradise.
Based on the 1984 film which starred Kevin Bacon as city boy Ren McCormack, he arrives with his mother Ethel in Bomont from Chicago in rebellious mood after learning of this backwater town’s dancing ban.
The ban came about following an incident some five years earlier after a car carrying four local youngsters had crashed into a river off a bridge… and Dean Pitchford original screenplay is based on just such an incident.
Having never seen the original film, prior to the show I mistakenly expected to hear a string of pop songs woven around another iffy storyline… but I was delighted to learn that Footloose is blessed with an excellent original score, so full marks to composer Tom Snow and its story-telling lyricist Dean Pitchford.
Talented Luke Baker plays the key role of Ren McCormack who is forced to lodge with his aunt and uncle in Bomont after his city-dwelling parents split up – and he soon has his eye on Ariel Moore (Hannah Price), daughter of church minister and local councillor, the Reverend Shaw Moore, who is superbly played by Nigel Lister.
From the opening curtain, the sheer energy displayed by the whole cast is infectious and you’re soon tapping your feet to the title song.
The whole cast are accomplished musicians and they somehow manage to take part in a series of cracking lively dance routines while playing live on stage … and that’s always far more impressive than hearing a taped soundtrack being belted out.
The dance routines themselves are both slick, colourful and energetic thanks to choreographer Matthew Cole while the multi-skilled musicians (under the direction of Mark Crossland and drummer David Keech), are as fresh as ever and some even managed to play their saxophones while performing on rollerskates!
Gareth Gates’ voice is also as good as ever. He plays the part of the dimwitted Willard in the style of Tom Hank’s Forrest Gump while he looks as if he’s spent hours toning his body in the gym as he strips off his denim dungarees in Holding Out For A Hero to display a genuine six pack which had the ladies in the audience whooping loudly.
Willard is a real mother’s boy and he is taught to dance by the energetic Ren who befriends him, Gareth’s rendition of Mama Says (You Can’t Back Down) also netting him one of the biggest cheers of the evening.
It’s odd to think that when he first appeared in Pop Idol back in 2001, Gareth Gates could hardly utter a single word without that dreadful stammer which made him even more nervous. Since then he has gone on to star in numerous musical productions and thanks to professional help, his speaking voice is now both clear and bold and he certainly plays the part of Willard for laughs.
As for Ms Nolan, she plays Vi Moore the reverend’s devoted wife while her wonderful vocal harmonies in the Learning to be Silent with Ariel and Ren’s mother Ethel McCormack (Nicky Swift) was one of my show favourites.
Maureen is a true professional having been in show business since The Nolans first came to prominence in the mid-1970s, yet she has lost none of that sparkle as she played the part of Vi to perfection as well as that of Bomont’s high school principal, Miss Clark.
Hannah Price was excellent as Vi’s sometimes feisty daughter Ariel who, thanks to Ren’s input, began to challenge her father who was determined to uphold the dancing ban. Before Ren arrived on the scene, Ariel’s boyfriend was Chuck (Tom Hier) who was upstaged by the newcomer which naturally set them on a collision course.
Shy and bashful Willard had a love interest in Rusty, played by Joanne Sawyer, who together with Wendy-Jo (Natasha Brown) and Urleen (Miracle Chance) led most of the dance routines along with the guitar playing Thomas Cotran (Jeter), Alex Marshall (Wes Warnicker), Steve Rushton (Bickle) and Luke Thornton as Garvin.
Meanwhile there was a real chemistry between Ren and Ariel in their Almost Paradise duet while the Reverend Shaw Moore finally changes his mind after Ren tells him a few home truths – and that allows the kids to hold a dance at school. The whole set then takes on a sparkling new look for the lively finale which had Monday night’s audience up on its feet and clapping to the beat.
For me Footloose: The Musical is one of the best touring shows around and it plays Milton Keynes Theatre until this coming Saturday (22 October) every night at 7.30pm while there are matinee performances on Wednesday and Saturday at 2.30pm.
Tickets are available from the Box Office, by calling 0844 871 7652 or by visiting www.atgtickets.com/miltonkeynes (booking fees apply).