Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: Review: Story, energy of ‘Footloose: The Musical’ catch hold in Abrams

Critic At Large

Charis Wirtley, from left, Jack Anderson, Owen Goffard, Katie Koehn, Abby Frank, Akeem Edmonds, Tyler Otto and Bella Frank pose during a rehearsal for “Footloose: The Musical” by Abrams Spotlight Productions, Inc. (Company photo)

ABRAMS, Wis. (WFRV)

Not quite getting a handle on voice work and comfort levels, the production of “Footloose: The Musical” by Abrams Spotlight Productions, Inc. is needy.

That said, the finale is really good, and the mood is upbeat in The Nancy Byng Community Theater, where the show based on the popular 1984 movie continues for four more performances to June 30.

Directed by Michael Laskowski, the players throw themselves into the show that is more than hit tunes and “everybody cut, everybody cut, everybody cut footloose.” The story grabs.

The story is based in fact: A Chicago teen moves to a town in the sticks where dancing has been banned. Writer Dean Pitchford saw a newspaper article about such a place and let his imagination run. He didn’t realize until later he was the show’s main character, Ren, an angry kid from a broken home. “‘Footloose’ has a great deal to do with a particular year in my life,” Pitchford told me in an interview in 1998, when the musical came through Green Bay on a national tour.

One of the interesting things is most performers in the Abrams Spotlight Productions cast are a generation-plus younger than the teenagers of the movie. A basic in the story is still relevant: Young adults vs. ramrod authority. Plus, there is the drama of a wife lamenting where the husband she admired has drifted. Those elements fully develop in Act II, which is the better.

The cast offers a sense of camaraderie and of daring to do the difficult. Key are:

Akeem Edmonds (Ren McCormick), who has an athletic way of dancing and who digs into the difficulties Ren wrestles with.

Abby Frank (Ariel Moore), one of the nimble dancers who captures the desires to break from the bonds of being a daughter of a rigid pastor. Together, Edmonds and Abby Frank find the passion in the important scene leading to the hit song “Almost Paradise.”

Bella Frank (Rusty), also a nimble dancer, who gets to deliver another hit song, “Let’s Hear It for the Boy.”

Kristen Bustrak (Vi Moore), whose performance in character and song of the pained wife of the pastor is a turning point, and gives the production fuller meaning.

Jerry Wirtley (the Rev. Shaw Moore), who challenges his comfort zone on stage by performing as a character that hits close to home. He is a minister.

Travis Rysewyk (Chuck Cranston/Cowboy Bob), who adds an ominous aura as Ariel’s mean boyfriend, Chuck.

Tyler Otto (Willard Hewitt), who brings an aw-shucks quality to the character of Ren’s buddy.

The production includes inventive creations for backdrops for the postage-stamp performance area. Hung from the stage ceiling, scenic panels slide in and out by way of a system of tracks with rollers.

The acoustics of the theater are such that Abrams Spotlight Productions can perform without wireless headsets that are common with many companies. Two things. One. The color of the voices of Charis Wirtley (Wendy Jo) and Bella Frank (Rusty) is obvious from others. Two. The songs that come from heavily produced origins in recording studios and from the style of the genre are heard au naturel (naked), so to speak. There is no fudging, which puts the songs in quite a different atmosphere than usual.

Extra effort goes into the “Almost Paradise” scene with Ren and Ariel. The two are outside on a starry night, the stars playing on the ceiling and walls of the theater by way of a ballroom crystal ball. Graffiti on rocks of the gathering spot appears by way of black light. What’s written enhances the story. “Bobby” refers to Ariel’s brother, one of four youth killed in a car crash returning from a dance – thus, the ban on dancing. One of the statements is “There is no death in memory.” One of the ways that has impact is the Rev. Moore’s memory of his son mercilessly grips him, causing him to react and create the core of “Footloose” and a need to cut loose.

***

Creative: Based on the original screenplay by Dean Pitchford: Book – Dean Pitchford, Walter Bobbie; music – Tom Snow with additional music by Eric Carmen, Sammy Hagar, Kenny Logins, Jim Steinman; lyrics – Dean Pitchford, with additional lyrics by Kenny Loggins; director – Michael Laskowski; assistant director – Justin Gulmire; music director – Kelly Ballard; set construction – Chris Weis, Mary Westberg, Megan Pierquet, David Jolly; costume designer – Katie Jackson; costumers – Olivia Shelly, Kathy Shelly, Kelly Klein, Rose Brehmer; choreographers – Ali Carlson, Jennifer Hibbard; dance captain – Bella Frank; combat choreographer – Tom Verbrick lighting designer – Debra Jolly, sound designer – Tanya Brehmer, props master – Sara Yach; stage manager – Tanya Brehmer, assistant stage manager – Chris Weis, technical director – Chris Weis; hair/make-up – Jacqueline Ploor.

Cast:

Ren McCormick – Akeem Edmonds

Jack/Ren Understudy (performed both June 22 shows) – Jack Anderson

Ariel Moore – Abby Frank

The Rev. Shaw Moore – Jerry Wirtley

Vi Moore – Kristen Bustrak

Wes Warnicker – Justin Gulmire

Lulu Warnicker – MacKenzie VanDenBogart

Rusty – Bella Frank

Willard Hewitt – Tyler Otto

Urleen – Katie Koehn

Wendy Jo – Charis Wirtley

Chuck Cranston/Cowboy Bob – Travis Rysewyk

Coach Dunbar – Mark Koehn

Eleanor Dunbar – Rolean Wernicke

Ethel McCormick – Talor Sohr

Lyle – Owen Goffard

Betty Blast/Cowboy Bobbie – Sydney Surber

Principal Clark – Eleanor Finger

Cop – Chris Weis

Running time: 2½ hours

Remaining performances: 7 p.m. June 28, 1 and 7 p.m. June 29, 1 p.m. June 30

Info: abramstheater.com

***

Musical selections (recorded soundtrack)

Act I

“Opening”/“On Any Sunday” – Company

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

“I Can’t Stand Still” – Ren, Willard

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

“Learning to Be Silent” – Vi, Ethel, Ariel

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

“Heaven Help Me” – Shaw

“I’m Free”/“Heaven Help Me” (Reprise) Company

Act II

“Still Rockin’” – Cowboy Bob

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

“Can You Find It in Your Heart?” – Vi

“Mama Says” – Willard, Ren

“Almost Paradise” – Ren, Ariel

“On Any Sunday” (Reprise) – Company

“After Heaven” (Reprise) – Shaw, Choir

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

Finale/Megamix – Company

***

NEXT (After Dark Productions): “Escanaba in Da Moonlight” by Jeff Daniels, Sept. 12-15, 19-22.

VENUE: (updated 6.23.19) The Nancy Byng Community Theater is located at 5852 Maple St. in Abrams. The 161-seat theater is the former St. Louis Catholic Church, built in 1927. Seating is in (recently updated) individual padded chairs (replacing wooden pews). Roman arched windows from the former church are have been uncovered, revealing eight stained-glass windows. Wooden walls and the ceiling panels made of compressed cardboard are painted black (a recent change, replacing geometric decorations and, on the walls, displays of cast-signed Abrams Spotlight Productions show posters). Another recent update is removal of carpeting to reveal wooden flooring that is refinished, or in some places, replaced with new flooring. Recently added in the center of the center aisle flooring is the image of the classic comedy/drama theater masks. In the back of the theater is a concession area that serves pop, popcorn, candy and light alcoholic beverages that may be consumed in the theater.

THE PERSON: Nancy Byng was involved in many facets of creativity, from painting to costume designing to directing to writing scripts. She co-founded the theater company on 2003 with her great-nephew, Brandon Byng, who continues his involvement in directing and acting in Clintonville and elsewhere. Nancy Byng died in 2011.

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