‘Footloose’ dances into hearts at Sheffield Zilker Hillside Theater

Rachel Perlmutter

A splutter of dancing feet breaks the silence on Sheffield Zilker Hillside Theater’s stage at Zilker Park as a group of rowdy teenagers kick their feet up and down in the theater’s rendition of “Footloose.” The quiet church scene to the right of the stage is almost unnoticeable until the hopping, dancing beats come to a screeching halt and the stage transforms into a Sunday sermon scene.

Playing through Aug. 13 and free to the public, Sheffield Zilker Hillside Theater’s arrangement of “Footloose” stays close to the iconic 1984 film starring Kevin Bacon and the 1998 musical adaptation, embracing the conflict between the free spirit of dance and the strictness of the church.

The story is set in 1980s Bomont, W.Va, where Ren McCormack (Andrew Cannata) and his mother Ethel (Sheree Bristoll) recently moved in with Ren’s aunt and uncle after his dad abandoned them. Ren tries to adjust to small-town life, but he isn’t prepared for the town’s ban on dancing, which was instituted by the local preacher. When the reverend’s rebellious daughter Ariel Moore (Mandy Hunt) sets her sights on Ren, her roughneck boyfriend tries to sabotage Ren’s reputation, and many of the locals are more than eager to believe the worst about the new kid. The central conflict of the play revolves around the stubborn, irrational rules set in place by the Rev. Shaw Moore (Scott Shipman) and the town’s confrontation of Ren’s contemporary thinking.

With the exception of a few heartfelt ballads such as “Almost Paradise,” the musical is full of youthful energy. It might not be the most powerful performance in the world, but it is enthusiastic and fun to watch. Renditions of classic songs like “Holding Out for a Hero” and “Let’s Hear it for the Boy” draw you in.

Ren’s best friend, Willard Hewitt (Leslie Hethcox), makes for some great comic relief throughout the play while struggling with learning how to express himself. This is particularly concerning when he deals with his romantic feelings toward hyperactive sweetheart Rusty (Taylor Moessinger). He is a simple man with two great loves: fighting and his mother. He is always seeking out her advice, however strange it may sound.

The song “Somebody’s Eyes,” sung by high school girls Urleen (Audrey Johnson), Wendy Jo (Terry Robertson-Baker) and Betty Jean (Sarah Reynolds), has a few issues.

While sassy and soulful, the voices are not always in harmony — particularly when they try to belt out powerful notes. The choreography is somewhat scattered like the rest of the musical, and the spacing of the trio is noticeably inconsistent and fluctuates often, making their more purposeful and unified moves seem disorganized.

Hunt’s lead vocals in the group ensemble “Holding Out for a Hero” are by far the strongest of the show. The burger joint suddenly plunges into a dramatic and fanciful dance number with purple and pink lighting as Ariel and the other girls break away from their Diet Cokes and complaints about small-town boys for the fast-paced number. Hunt’s voice is soulful and strong — the power of her voice is a standout in the musical.

Ren and Ariel’s duet, “Almost Paradise” is a welcomed ballad in the musical full of dance numbers. The cast’s two strongest voices finally unite in a romantic song about their newfound love. Endearing and honest, the couple have you rooting for them and their plans to change the town.

While there are a few rough spots, overall the musical is enjoyable. The characters seem honest and believable as they draw you in with their personal histories and they keep you interested with their light dance numbers. For a free performance, it is well worth it.

Printed on 7/25/2011 as: 'Footloose' thespians offer youthful energy, lack group harmony