The ‘80s come exhilaratingly back to life as Alex Owens once again pursues her dream of leaving behind her drab steel mill-worker-by-day, nightclub-dancer-by-night life and becoming a serious ballerina in Flashdance The Musical, now playing at Costa Mesa’s Segerstrom Center For the Arts. And the verdict? Despite a book that still needs work, last night’s Opening Night standing ovation leaves no doubt that Flashdance is a bona fide crowd-pleaser.

Emily Padgett as Alex Owens, Flashdance The Musical Photo by Kyle Froman Book writers Tom Hedley and Robert Cary stick fairly close to the plotlines created by Hedley and Joe Eszterhas for the 1983 movie smash, one which introduced Jennifer Beals to the world along with an off-the-shoulder sweatshirt craze that swept the nation.

Pittsburgh native Alex (Jillian Mueller, getting her first Opening Night in the role) works days as a welder and nights as a dancer at a local bar alongside bff Gloria (Kelly Felthous), who dreams of dancing in MTV videos, the two best friends mentored by more seasoned dancers Tess (Katie Webber) and Kiki (DeQuina Moore).

Meanwhile over at Hurley’s Steel Mill, young Nick Hurley (Matthew Hydzik) is learning the family business from the ground up and finding himself attracted to the mill’s most attractive female welder despite (or perhaps because of) her sassy mouth and take-no-bullshit attitude.

Supporting players include Hannah (JoAnn Cunningham), the elderly ballerina-turned-dance instructor who encourages Alex not to let self-doubt prevent her from applying for admission to Pittsburgh’s premiere dance conservatory; Jimmy (David R. Gordon), Gloria’s smart-alecky boyfriend who dreams of standup comedy stardom in New York; Harry (Matthew Henerson), who owns the bar where Alex dances; and C.C. (Christian Whelan), a nogoodnik whose sleazier strip-club has been stealing customers (and dancers) from Harry’s.

If this all seems rather too flimsy (and at times improbable) a foundation for a musical, remember that Flashdance The Movie was pretty much savaged by the critics, to whose thumbs-down audiences gave the Philly finger, making the film the third-highest box office grosser of 1983.

What Flashdance had going for it as a movie (in addition to the nineteen-year-old it turned into an overnight star) was its songs (including “Maniac” and the Oscar-winning “Flashdance… What a Feeling”) and Alex’s dancing, performed by unbilled “stunt double” Marine Jahan.

Finding ways to integrate the abovementioned songs, along with “I Love Rock And Roll,” “Manhunt,” and “Gloria,” into a traditional musical in which characters break into song at the drop of a hat might seem a daunting task given that none of them appear likely candidates to “advance the plot.” Enter the book writers’ inspired solution to this dilemma, aka Kiki and Tess, who perform most of the movie’s hits as nightclub numbers backing up the musical’s greatest asset, a series of sensational dance sequences choreographed by Tony-winner Sergio Trujillo, who serves also as the musical’s high-octane director.

In fact, if there’s anything sure to get Flashback audiences cheering, it’s Trujillo’s inspired dance numbers, many of which juxtapose ballet with ‘80s jazz, modern, and breakdancing, all of which are executed to perfection by an extraordinarily gifted ensemble of both lead performers and “background players.”

Flashdance The Musical Photo by Kyle Froman Over a dozen brand-new plot-driving songs have been added to Flashdance The Musical (music by Robbie Roth and lyrics by Cary and Roth), the best of which are ballads like “Here And Now,” “Hang On,” and “Where I Belong,” songs which feature one hummable hook after another and make the recording of an Original Cast CD a must. As for the show’s up-tempo numbers, if they end up mostly generic ‘80s pop, they definitely do capture the sounds of a decade as well as showcase Roth’s gift for melody.

Hedley and Cary’s book proves the most problematic aspect of a show with Broadway dreams. Though Alex gets plenty of stage time throughout, the focus is too often on peripheral characters, and since we see Alex doing little to actually prepare for her dream other than talk about it (that is when she’s not finding reasons to avoid auditioning), she doesn’t capture our hearts the way she ought to. Hedley and Cary need to give us more reasons to care about Alex and root for her, the way we do Billy Elliot.

Fortunately, performances go a long way towards making up for any script deficiencies, first and foremost that of the Flashdance tour newcomer who brings Alex to vibrant, sizzling life. Quintessential triple-threat Mueller does it all, and does it sensationally, whether dancing up a storm, belting out tunes with the best of them, or making us believe in Alex despite the script’s improbabilities.

Boy-next-door Hydzik is everything anyone could wish for in a romantic musical theater leading man, Felthous is a dynamic Madonna-meets-Cyndi powerhouse, and Orange County’s very own Gordon combines charisma, a cocky charm, and gorgeous pipes to winning effect. Veteran character actors Henerson and Cunningham are both marvelous, as is Thursday Farrar, who deserves featured-player billing as Hannah’s sassy caregiver Louise. Whelan plays sleazy with the best of them, while Dan Kohler, Ariela Morgenstern, and Lawrence E. Street make strong impressions in cameo roles.

Last but not least are Moore and Webber, two of the buffest, leggiest, sexiest, and most talented singer-dancers you’ll ever see on a Broadway or regional stage, each with her own showcase number, Webber’s powerhouse “I Love Rock And Roll” and Moore’s sexsational “Manhunt.”

Matthew Hydzik and the Company of Flashdance The Musical Photo by Kyle Froman Supporting all of the above are some of the country’s most phenomenal dancers: Claire Camp, Derek Carley, Ryan Carlson (Break Dancer), Lynorris Evans, Farrar, Haley Hannah, Jacob Karr, Kohler, Holly Laurent, Morgenstern, Shane Ohmer (Ballet Dancer), Rebecca Riker, Andrea Spiridonakos (Ballet Dancer), and Street, who segue from ballet to modern and back so seamlessly that you’d think there were twice their number onstage. (Swings Natalie Caruncho and Nick McGough are poised to step into ensemble tracks at a moment’s notice.)

With music supervision and arrangements by Jason Howland, Nate Patten conducing the show’s ‘80s rock concert-ready orchestra, and sound designers John Shivers and David Patridge in charge of the overall mix, Flashdance sounds absolutely fantastic, and it looks every bit as ‘80s-sensational as it sounds, thanks to scenic designer Klara Zieglerova, costume designer Paul Tazewell, lighting designer Howell Binkley, hair and wig designer Charles LaPointe, makeup designer Cookie Jordan, and above all projection designer Peter Negrini, whose color-saturated LED-screen projections are not only gorgeous to look at but take us from location to location in an instant. Other credits are too numerous to mention, though the backstage work of production stage manager Mary MacLeod, stage manager CJ LaRoche, and assistant stage manager Shannon Hammons cannot be ignored.

While it may be too soon for Flashdance The Musical to make a touring-to-Broadway transfer, with additional work by its creative team, a Broadway run may well be in the cards. Regardless of its future on the Great White Way, Flashdance The Musical seems poised to become a regional theater favorite, following in the dance-steps of its fellow ‘80s musicals Footloose and The Wedding Singer. Orange County and L.A. audiences have the next two weeks to discover why.

Segerstrom Center For The Arts, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa.

–Steven Stanley
May 7, 2013
Photos: Kyle Froman

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