Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: Review: Energy fills ‘Footloose' in Neenah

Riverside Players

NEENAH, Wis. - Okay, everybody dance. That simple order that’s easier said than done is a major part of the “Footloose – The Musical” production being put on through Aug. 6 by Riverside Players community theater.

Thursday’s opening show played to a full house at Riverside Pavilion in beautiful Riverside Park.

Large knots of performers crank up their bodies multiple times doing what a key character says they’re not supposed to do. The story is about a small town where public dancing is prohibited by ordinance force-imposed by the town pastor – and about a defiant youth from Chicago who takes that as a challenge to change. It’s a bit like, “Hey kids, we’re gonna fight for the right to par-tee.” Along the way, deeper stuff happens.

Unspoken in the production is how the performers buy into what they are doing. Hours of preparation with the dancing is very much evident. Director and choreographer Chris Pazdernik, a hired-in hand who is a Neenah native, did yeoman’s work to bring these players, many of whom do not normally performance-dance, from scratch to the point where they get their mojo workin’ on stage. At times, the performance space is filled with bodies toolin’ to the invigorating sounds of “Footloose” and other full-on numbers. Much of the audience is mere feet away from the performers, so the aura is certainly a-live. While some of the performers are out of their element in dance, others toss in derring-do, gymnastic flips and cartwheels and such. It’s quite the menagerie of dance.

Joshua Bishop is wired to play Ren McCormack – the new kid in town – in lithe moves, bright voice and fighting-the-flow characterization. Many of his songs are rock-holler type, but the lyrical/ballad side comes out nicely in the “Almost Paradise” duet near the end with Ariel Moore (Kate Sawyer), the pastor’s defiant, free-will daughter.

Along with the buy-into factor in this production, two performers in secondary roles especially sell their characters. Jason Stoll plays the town tough, Chuck Cranston. Sinewy and sinister, Chuck is the kind of person you instantly hate. Stoll, the veins continually rising in his neck from intensity, exudes a hormonal macho bravado. His forceful kisses with Ariel speak dominance. Stoll normally is a techie guy behind the scenes and is probably a nice guy. In this role, his character is not a nice guy. Also, there’s Thomas Bebeau as goofus hick Willard Hewitt. Bebeau is a tall drink of water – 6-foot-8 or something like that – so he’s an immediate presence in cowboy boots and bib overalls. Beabeau digs into the aw-shucks comic role and adds needed sheer-fun to show. The standing joke is this giant kind of guy always does what his mama says, and we hear all about that in the laugh-filled song, “Mama Says.”

This and that about the production:

+ While much turns around Ren and dealings with Reverend Shaw Moore – the dance/no-dance stuff and Ariel’s errant ways – the reflections of the quietly dominant woman in the situation provide the meatiest offerings. Amanda Petersen Fails finesses the role of Vi Moore and then brings color and meaning to the song, “Can You Find It in Your Heart.”

+ The churnings in Pastor Moore build to a catharsis witnessed by the audience, and on opening night Kyle Brauer played the release to the point of producing tears from himself.

+ Strength of voices range widely.

+ The cast works hard.

+ The performance area in the pavilion is such that voice amplification is not necessary. Wireless headsets are common these days for balance and volume. The preferred quality is that of the natural voice – the real thing – and that’s a plus in this production.

+ The music is live from an off-stage, unseen orchestra. Again, the real thing is a plus.


Creative: Based on the screenplay by Walter Bobbie: book – Dean Pitchford, Walter Bobbie; music – Tom Snow, with additional music by Eric Carmen, Sammy Haggar, Kenny Loggins, Jim Steinman; lyrics – Dean Pitchford; director – Chris Pazdernik; choreographer – Chris Paszdernik; music director – Molly Schlaak; assistant director – Amanda Petersen Fails; technical director – Tommy Derouin; stage manager – Cameron Fails; assistant technical director – Jeremiah Howard; technical director advisor, lighting designer – Jason Stoll; costumer/props master – Kelly Stoll; assistant stage manager – Frank Tower

Cast: Ren McCormick – Joshua Bishop; Ariel Moore – Kate Sawyer; Reverend Shaw Moore – Kyle Brauer; Vi Moore – Amanda Petersen Fails; Ethel McCormack – Angela Ferlo O’Donnell; Willard Hewitt – Thomas Bebeau; Chuck Cranston – Jason Stoll; LuLu Warnicker – Donna McVey; Wes Warnicker – Jim Coatley; Coach Roger Dunbar – L. Douglas Bord-Pire; Eleanor Dunbar – Michelle VanZeeland; Principal Clark/Cowgirl – Laura Oudenhoven; Rusty – Larissa Petersen; Urleen – Kadie Smith; Wendy Jo – Alyssa Ferlo; Lyle/Cowboy Bob – Andrew Schmitz; Travis – Amos Huse; Betty Blast – Kristen Jobe; Jeter – Miles Yokom; Garvin/Cop – James Frelich; Ensemble – Krista Frenz, Isabelle Blank, Rachel Sandlin

Orchestra: Keyboard 1/conductor – Molly Schlaak; keyboard 2 – Sam Schlaak; guitar – John Tabers-Kwak; bass – Martin LaGrow; drums – John Payne

Running time: Two hours, 15 minutes

Remaining performances: 8 p.m. July 28, 29, Aug. 2, 3, 4 and 5; 2 p.m. July 30 and Aug. 6

Info: ci.neenah.wi.us/departments/parks-recreation/riverside-players/

Musical selections

Act I

“Footloose” – Ren McCormack and Company

“On Any Sunday” – Shaw Moore and Company

“The Girl Gets Around” – Chuck, Travis, Lyle, Ariel

“I Can't Stand Still” – Ren

“Somebody’s Eyes” – Rusty, Urleen, Wendy Jo and Company

“Learning To Be Silent” – Vi, Ethel

“Holding Out for a Hero” – Ariel, Rusty, Urleen, Wendy Jo

“Somebody’s Eyes” (Reprise) – Rusty, Urleen, Wendy Jo, Chuck, Lyle, Travis

“Heaven Help Me” – Shaw

“I’m Free/Heaven Help Me” – Ren, Shaw and Company

Act II

“Still Rockin’” – Cowboy Bob and Band

“Let’s Hear It for the Boy” – Rusty, Girls

“Can You Find It in Your Heart” – Vi

“Dancing is Not a Crime” – Ren and Company

 “Mama Says (You’ Can’t Back Down:” – Willard, Bickle, Garvin, Jeter, Ren

“Almost Paradise” – Ren, Ariel

“Heaven Help Me” (Reprise) – Ren, Shaw

“I Confess” – Shaw

“Can You Find it in Your Heart? (Reprise)” – Shaw

“Footloose” (Finale) – Company


VENUE: Riverside Pavilion in Riverside Park in Neenah is an open shelter used for summer shows of Riverside Players. The “Theatre in the Park” concept started in 1955. Seating for 244 is set up around three sides of a rectangular stage. The building is stone exterior, with the inside including a wooden ceiling with large wooden support beams and a cement floor. The performance space is what amounts to a thrust stage – “thrusting” out into the audience. This style of stage is famous in some locations – Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis, Stratford Festival in Canada. It’s interesting that the Riverside Players stage came to be in the 1950s just as thrust stages in other places were getting attention as pioneering. The pavilion’s location is picturesque. The park, on the Fox River near Lake Winnebago, is rimmed on two sides by grand historical homes, one of which was converted into Bergstrom-Mahler Museum of Glass. For settings, Riverside Players has a spot that catches the eye like few others.

Contact me at warren.gerds@wearegreenbay.com. Watch for my on-air Critic at Large editions on WFRV-TV at 6:20 a.m. Sundays. My new books, “Three Miles Past Lost and in the Pickers” and “Nickolaus and Olive – a naïve opera (in words),” are available in Green Bay at Neville Public Museum, Bosse’s and The Reader’s Loft.

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