- The Washington Times - Friday, August 1, 2003

Help. Seeing “Footloose: The Musical” has induced a need for ‘80s pop detox. As if knowing all the words to “Let’s Hear It for the Boy” and “Holding Out for a Hero” was not sobering enough, this turbo-charged, highly likeable show made me want to wear shirts baring one shoulder, a la “Flashdance,” and invite a few friends over for a Kevin Bacon film festival.

You may have similar responses to Toby Dinner Theatre’s rollicking production of the musical, based on the 1984 hit movie starring Mr. Bacon and John Lithgow. But remember: Moussing your hair in a Flock of Seagulls ‘do is going too far.

No matter how you feel about the decade of big hair and ingratiating synth-pop hooks, this production of “Footloose” might make you an ‘80s convert. The triple threat team — director Toby Orenstein, choreographer Ilona Kessell and musical director Douglas Lawler — behind last season’s triumphant “Jekyll and Hyde,” have once again delivered a show that is fun, polished and accessible to a wide range of ages.

Unlike many dinner theaters, Toby’s has a relatively small seating capacity. Instead of the usual cavernous barn of a dinner theater, Toby’s is intimate, and the actors are so close they are practically dancing in your coffee cup.

This nearness generates excitement and immediacy, but the round stage can make it hard to block the action in a way that allows the cast to play to all parts of the room. Miss Orenstein and crew resourcefully invent myriad ways for the actors to dance and perform in a circular fashion without drawing too much attention to the device. Miss Kessell’s choreography, in particular, suits both the space and the show, with its emphasis on hormone-driven leaps and Texas two-step line dance kicks and scoots.

“Footloose” tells a simple, all-American story about teenage rebellion that brings about healing rather than destruction. The story centers on Ren McCormack (Stephen Gregory Smith), an antsy teenager from Chicago who moves to the rural town of Bomont with his mother Ethel (Lynne R. Sigler).

Abandoned by her husband, Ethel hopes that small town life will have a calming effect on her son. Instead, Ren sticks out like a Democrat at a bankers’ convention, arousing suspicion from the townspeople and constantly getting into trouble.

Ren chafes under the town’s oppression — dancing, rock music and other adolescent pleasures have been banned by the powerful Reverend Shaw Moore (Daniel L. McDonald) after four teens died in a car crash after a night of carousing.

Ron can’t conceive of life without dancing, so he bands together with the preacher’s vixenish daughter, Ariel (Margo Seibert), and her friends, the chatterbox, Rusty (Felicia Curry), and the town hick, Willard (Nick Blaemire), to try to pry open the preacher’s sealed-shut mind.

“Footloose” boasts all the expected hits — “Almost Paradise,” “Footloose” and “The Girl Gets Around” — and a dynamite young cast, starting off with Mr. Smith as Ren. He is a fleet-footed ball of fire, compact and intense, adding sizzle to his songs “I Can’t Stand Still,” “Footloose” and “I’m Free” — the number that closes the first act with bang-up gymnastic choreography.

His partner in harmless crime is the sultry-voiced Miss Seibert as Ariel, on the surface a fast girl but in reality a voracious reader and poet. Miss Seibert has the sexy, hip-thrusting moves of a bad girl down pat, but her voice rightfully belongs in a ritzy uptown supper club.

“Footloose” also features Felicia Curry, an “American Idol” contender from Baltimore, whose petite frame belies a voice that could blow the roof off the joint. Her powerful voice pipes leading-lady brio into “Holding Out for a Hero” and “Let’s Hear it for the Boy.”

As Miss Curry’s reluctant boyfriend Willard, Mr. Blaemire possesses a rubbery, country-boy charm that peps up his big number, “Mama Says.” On the elder side, Miss Siegler provides some skillfully underplayed moments as Ethel, and her counterpart in subtle control is Lani Howe as the infinitely patient preacher’s wife.

There are some overdone moments — Reverend Moore’s crisis of confidence, “I Confess,” is rather mawkish, as are most of the scenes set in church. And, while the scenery is a marvel of portability — the actors tote much of it on and off stage themselves — some of the effects are a mite cheesy.

Yet, no matter how corny it seems, you cannot help but cheer on “Footloose” and Ren’s efforts to bring some liberating footwork to the fun-starved citizens of Bomont.

***

WHAT: “Footloose” by Dean Pitchford and Walter Bobbie

WHERE: Toby’s Dinner Theatre, 5900 Symphony Woods Road, Columbia, Md.

WHEN: 6 p.m. (dinner and show) Tuesdays to Saturdays, 5 p.m. Sundays, 10:30 a.m. Wednesdays and Sundays. Through Aug. 31.

TICKETS: $24.50 to $43

PHONE: 800/88TOBYS MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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