If you’ve ever seen Kevin Bacon in Footloose, you’ve heard of Bomont, the Midwest town where high-schooler Ren McCormack discovered to his dismay that it was illegal to dance. The 1984 film introduced a heap of 80s hits, including the title song, “Let’s Hear It For the Boy,” “Almost Paradise,” “Holding Out For A Hero,” “I’m Free,” “Somebody’s Eyes,” and “The Girl Gets Around.” Fourteen years later Footloose made it to Broadway as a full-fledged musical, with most of the movie hits integrated into its story line and a bunch of new Tom Snow creations added. The resulting production ran for over 700 performances, and has since become a favorite high school and college musical.

Now, the students of Cal State Fullerton’s nationally acclaimed musical theater program give Footloose The Musical a go, proving once again (as they did with their recent staging of Rent) that CSUF is one of the best places around town to see terrific big-stage musicals performed by über-talented young triple-threats on their way to successful Broadway and regional theater careers.

Like the movie, Footloose The Musical follows teenage Ren (Nico Ramirez) and his mother Ethel (Jessica Wilson) from Chicago to the sticks of Bomont, where the two seek refuge after being abandoned by Ren’s father. It’s hard enough for the big-city boy to adjust to life in the boonies, but when he learns that dancing is against the law inside the city limits, it’s the last straw, and Ren vows to do something about it.

But first he must conquer the high school population, the sexy newcomer soon becoming the boy all the girls want to be bad with, particularly Ariel (Micaela Martinez), the rebellious daughter of town preacher Shaw Moore (Ricky Wagner). Abetted by new best friend Willard (Dennis Bendersky), a sweet but not-too-bright fellow student, and Ariel’s three best girlfriend’s Rusty (Shauni Gerner), Urleen (Salisha Thomas), and Wendy Jo (Casey Canino), Ren vows to bring dancing back to Bomont, if it’s the last thing he does. This being musical theater, it’s a no-brainer how it all turns out, but getting there is all the fun.

CSUF faculty member Eve Himmelheber directs a phenomenal student cast with imagination and panache. Ramirez, so memorable as Angel in December’s Rent, plays all-American boy-next-door Ren with abundant charm, and dances to dazzle any audience. (At the performance reviewed, a case of laryngitis had Ramirez lip-syncing his songs to an offstage Neil Starkenberg’s live vocals, a memorable case of The Show Must Go On as well as terrific practice for Ramirez’s future film and TV roles where live singing is verboten.) As Ariel, the lovely and engaging Martinez wins hearts as Ren’s good girl/bad girl love interest, dancing with flair and singing with first-class power pipes, her duet of “Almost Paradise” with Ramirez/Starkenberg an Act Two highlight.

Assistant dance captain Bendersky, discovered by StageSceneLA as a teenage dramatic actor in Theatre 40’s Pen while still a Beverly Hills High student, proves himself a charismatic singer/dancer as well in the role of “good ol’ boy” Willard. In addition to Willard’s hilarious salute to his mother’s quirky brand of wisdom in “Mama Says,” Bendersky fake “bad-dances” to the music of “Let’s Hear It For The Boy,” belted to the rafters by petite dynamo Gerner, an absolute delight as Willard’s girlfriend Rusty. As for Rusty’s homegirls Wendy Jo and Urlene, they are brought to sassy life by Canino and Thomas.

It’s tough for 18-to-22-year-olds to pull off 40something roles, but Wagner makes for a fine Reverend Moore, singing a moving “Heaven Help Me” and bringing tears to this reviewer’s eyes with the Reverend’s eleventh hour turnaround. Jessica Apperson as the preacher’s wife Vi impresses with a beautifully sung “Can You Find It In Your Heart”, and duets “Learning To Be Silent” with a terrific Wilson as Ethel, Martinez joining in to make the duo a trio.

Completing the cast of principals is the sensational Carnation in the role of Chuck, the meanest (and sexiest) bad boy in town. Carnation’s vocal performance in “The Girl Gets Around” is matched by some wow-worthy dance moves in “Holding Out For A Hero,” including one breathtaking mile-high pirouette.

Footloose’s all-around stellar ensemble is composed of Timothy Alexander III (Garvin), Michael Dashefsky (Travis), Gary Fields (Principal Harry Clark), Tim Fitzsimons (Cowboy Bob), dance captain Amy Ganser (Bar-B-Que Singer), Abby Hankins (Bar-B-Que Singer), William Hoshida (Coach Roger Dunbar), Caitlin Humphreys (Betty Blast), Stephanie Inglese (Bar-B-Que Singer), Jared Kaitz, Dominic Leslie (Bickle), Edgar Lopez (Wes Warnicker), Chris Murakami (Cop), Starkenberg (Lyle), Amy Trgovac (Eleanor Dunbar), Rebecca Tucker (Lulu Warnicker), Gina Velez, and Robert Wallace (Jeter). Among the above, those playing teens deserve extra kudos for their exceptional dance skills, and Starkenberg for stepping in at the very last minute and voicing Ren’s songs so beautifully and in seamless sync with Ramirez.

Credit for choreographing one breathtaking dance sequence after another goes to CSUF faculty member William F. Lett, demanding much of his talented young cast and getting back all he demands, and more. I particularly liked the addition of a charismatic Carnation in honest-to-goodness superhero gear in “Holding Out For A Hero.”

Musical director Diane King Vann (also CSUF faculty) conducts the rocking seven-piece (mostly student) Footloose orchestra: Peter Herz (faculty) and Dana Seufert on keyboards, Adrienne Geffen on reeds, Jeff Askew and Ed Kusby on guitars, Lou Savage on bass, and David Page on drums.

As for the production’s design elements, they easily rival the best of our local CLOs, with Brad Shelton’s imaginative scenic design a particular winner. Rachel Lorenzetti’s costumes, CSUF faculty Susan Hallman’s lighting, Lindsay Putnam’s sound, and Averi Jenkins and Noël Walker’s hair and makeup are the same high-caliber designs you’d find in the best professional productions.

Musical theater lovers, particularly those with an affection for dance-heavy shows, are urged to check out Cal State Fullerton’s Footloose The Musical. See these kids now, because in a few years time, you’ll be paying Broadway big bucks to see the very same triple threats who are now thrilling local audiences in one of the dandiest (and most affordable) shows in town.

Little Theatre, California State University, Fullerton.
–Steven Stanley
April 9, 2011

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