Theater archives

Zombie Aerobics


Footloose is sad because its intentions are so good: It’s like a well-meaning child trying to teach a lame dog to jump through hoops. Visions of commercial success may be floating through the child’s head, but that doesn’t erase the good it wanted to do; still, lame dogs don’t jump.

Footloose is based on a 1981 movie I never saw, which is presumably livelier, if only because it isn’t weighed down by the drab, half-formed new songs in which the stage version’s characters whimper out their interpersonal grievances. These items took me uncomfortably back to the early ’60s, when every musical that died quickly traded in such stuff. True, Footloose has other kinds of numbers, but you don’t clear a flop musical out of your brain by dashing home to watch a blurred rerun of a second-rate rock-concert film.

Footloose takes place in the small rural town of Beaumont, 10 hours’ drive from Chicago, a puzzling place where the minister and his few pals make the rules, but the teens all seem totally hip to the outside world. There are three black kids in the high school, but not an adult of color in sight. Everybody goes to the same church, showing
up regularly every Sunday morning, but there’s no creepy mechanized uniformity, no bigotry, no suicidal despair, no
prescription-drug dependencies–not even an eating disorder. The closest we get to drugs and drink is a three-guy motorcycle gang that hovers on the edge of town; its leader, who dates the minister’s rebellious daughter, gets all soft-spoken and polite when confronting her parents. As small towns in musicals go, Beaumont makes Brigadoon look like a sewer out of Émile Zola.

The minister’s main obsession is dancing, which is banned because four local kids, including his son, were killed driving home drunk from a Saturday night dance. (You wonder what he would be banning if they’d died on the way home from a religious retreat or a Bible class–the sort of events that usually drive small-town kids to drink.) This stroke of Hollywood story-editor glibness, giving the villain a sympathetic motive, of course kills the show’s good intentions. Propelled by his one-of-a-kind tragedy, the minister is a special case; he no longer has any political meaning as part of a generation that confronts the changing world by blanking out reality as much as possible, victimizing and warping its own kids in the process. Though Footloose means to appeal to believers in free expression, tolerance, and democratic good will, it keeps an empty-eyed distance from the real world, where people calling themselves “prolife” stalk and gun down doctors, and the streets of every big city are full of small-town teens who’ve been kicked out by their parents for being queer.

(Those who get this paper early can study the latter in Todd Nelson’s vivid documentary Surviving Friendly Fire, at the Screening Room through October 29. It’s about gay and lesbian kids from a homeless shelter in L.A. turning their lives into a musical–a virtual antithesis of Footloose.)

Nothing so dramatic happens in Footloose‘s plot: A boy from Chicago and his mom move to Beaumont, apparently dependent on one of the minister’s pals, who is apparently–the slapdash script muddies all of this–mom’s brother. Both mom and son have trouble fitting in; we have even more trying to figure out why they bothered. The boy falls in love with the minister’s daughter, who succumbs with minimal resistance; her biker, as pathetic in passion as in badness, vanishes from the plot after punching her in the eye, offstage. By deciding to give a dance, the boy becomes an instant hero to the local kids who were treating him as dead meat a minute before. A few tense words win the minister over too, and the whole thing’s settled as casually as if Henry Hyde cut the ribbon on a new abortion clinic every two days.

If Footloose were fancy free, if its staging or its songs had any imaginative flair, it could lift even this banal substance to the level of bearable diversion. But the director, Walter Bobbie, seems to have spent most of his time trying to repair the book (which he coauthored with Dean Pitchford), while choreographer A.C. Ciulla apparently left his focus in an editing room at MTV; never has so much good dancing been so poorly shaped and framed. The new Pitchford-Snow songs are limp compared to those funneled in from the movie, which are all pallid next to the one big hit it generated, “Let’s Hear It for the Boy,” which is dumb but cheerful–high praise in the context of Footloose.

As usual, the actors, Broadway’s eternal martyrs, are called on to save the unsalvageable situation, and nearly do. I may resist the magic others find in Dee Hoty, but even a blend of Callas and Mary Pickford couldn’t animate the role of the minister’s wife. Even less lucky is Stephen Lee Andrews, a late arrival to the role of her husband, who has to repent his ways in a number that sounds like the Soliloquy from Carousel sung in reverse search. The worst outrage of all is the misuse of Catherine Cox, one of Broadway’s few lead performers these days with a strong, distinctive style; her classy presence is wasted on the role of the boy’s mother, a small grab bag of sighs and wry smiles. Among the young, I approve of Stacy Francis singing, Jeremy Kushnier in motion, Rosalind Brown zinging out one-liners (if only they were worth zinging), and of Jennifer Laura Thompson and Tom Plotkin in general. But the artists onstage are the only ones to achieve anything in Footloose. Its creators offer only good intentions–a pile of paving stones for the road to hell.

The seven actors in Elevator Repair Service’s Total Fictional Lie, who break into dance almost as often as the kids in Footloose, don’t have to fake up any Broadway pseudo-excitement over their material: They’ve been down the road to hell with this society and aren’t making any bones about it. Their first big number is a near-parody of Footloose‘s aerobic frenzies, set to a piece of ’50s lounge-act bop, which they endure with the resentful glare of zombies who are inexplicably testy about being roused from eternal sleep. After a good dose of Uptown hype, the negative attitude is sharp and refreshing. Some of the comic freshness in it wears off as the piece moves on, but the intelligence behind it, and the skill with which it’s carried out, keep their hold on you.

Hype of various kinds is in fact Total Fictional Lie‘s subject. The text is a set of cunningly deployed, mix-and-match snippets from various documentary films, so that we hear teen pop star Paul Anka’s manipulators, an anonymous Bible salesman, and the multiple murderer Aileen Wuornos all mouthing off–sometimes in counterpoint–about whatever particular piece of b.s. they’re trying to sell us. Between and among these verbal manipulations of others come physical manipulations: At the opening, Paul (tiny, darkly glowering Susie Sokol) emerges feet first from a wooden box; at various points two and then three of the cast’s five females crowd their way into the crate and out again until Paul’s finally forced back in at play’s end. That it’s women–except in “Paul” ‘s case–who manipulate themselves and each other into the box, often while the two men look on noncommittally, is a resonant point the group delicately leaves untouched by comment. The self-punishment performers (particularly dancers) go through for their art stands in for the internalized self-punishment of groups society classes as inferior.

As its attitude would suggest, Elevator Repair Service isn’t always forthcoming about its substance. ERS’s standard tactic is dry, unemphatic comment, its principal target–the pervasive phoniness of the social structure we inhabit–both slightly facile and rather nebulous. The troupe could reach more daringly far, and grasp more fiercely, without losing its seemingly irrefragable cool. I know it could because its work here, under codirectors John Collins and Steve Bodow, has integrity, intelligence, and precision as well as imaginative skill; and its actors, especially Sokol and Rinne Groff, have talent for days. If that sounds like hype, try the trip from 46th and Broadway to 9th Street and First Avenue yourself. The minds are sharper, and the feet distinctly looser, Downtown.