TBT summer season opens up on high, energetic note

When I envision the perfect summer show to entertain not only local residents, but also the many out-of-town visitors who like to catch a play at the theatre while in town, I conjure up something big, fun and full of energy. Thunder Bay Theatre’s “Footloose,” which opened earlier this week, checks all those required boxes.

TBT took the plunge by hiring in an unusually large summer core company of 13, then supplemented with a number of other talented hometown performers. It’s a move that paid off, especially for new Artistic Director Jeffrey Mindock.

He’s put up a winner of a show for his directing debut in Alpena. This whitewashed ode to teenage rebellion contains exuberant dancing, vibrant choreography and some wonderful performances both individually and collectively.

For those who never saw the original 1985 “Footloose” film that immortalized actor Kevin Bacon, the story follows big city teen Ren McCormack (newcomer Cameron Jones) who arrives in Nowheresville, Texas, from Chicago with his mom, and then proceeds to teach the straight-laced town that young folks just gotta dance, particularly if they hope to heal from past hurts.

Ren’s strongest opposition comes from Rev. Shaw, (long-time audience favorite David Usher), whose son was killed in a car accident after a party and who has since convinced the town council to make dancing illegal. In Shaw’s opinion, rock music gives rise to baser instincts. It also doesn’t help that Ren’s instantly drawn to the Reverand’s rather wild, dance-prone daughter, Ariel.

Sure, the plot is stuck a little bit in an earlier era of seemingly mild teenage concerns (egads, no dancing!), but that just gives the show a pleasing nostalgic feel. Besides teenage angst and the age-old struggle between younger and older generations has and will continue to exist.

Right from the infectious opening rhythms of the instantly recognizable title song, “Footloose,” it’s evident there’s some talent up there on the stage. The new company members give it their all, Jones and fellow newcomer Mattie Jo Cowsert as the spunky Ariel, most certainly among them.

Zach Erhardt as Ariel’s bad-boy boyfriend, Chuck Cranston; Emily Senkowsky as Ariel’s fast-talking bestfriend, Rusty; and Aidan Cleary as Rusty’s clumsy, dimwitted boyfriend, Willard, also shine. So too does the always solid Nickie Hilton, who plays Rev. Shaw’s wife, Vi.

“Footloose” contains a large cast of 18, so there are lots of supporting roles: Mikaela Holmes as Urleen, Kristen Mainka as Ren’s mom, Hannah Matzke as Wendy Jo, Rick Mesler as Wes Warnicker, Ashley Timmreck as Lulu, Nick Hartman as the school principal, Dylan Goike as Cowboy Bob, and Corey Keller, Mac Fountain, Zach Clement and Christian Ryan as male ensemble members.

It’s the dancing and the music, however, that drive the show. Ryan, another new core company performer doing double-duty as choreographer, definitely deserves kudos for his work on the dance numbers. They are crisp, creative and well-executed due in no small part to some accomplished dancers in the cast, Ryan among them.

Music director and piano accompanist Bunny Lyon fills the theatre with a lot of great sound, along with additional accompaniment by Courtney Marshall on saxophone, Stephanie Woytaszek on drums and Pat Altman on bass guitar.

Besides the title song of “Footloose,” penned nearly three decades ago by Kenny Loggins, several other cuts from the original soundtrack went on to become bonafide hits. It’s a blast to hear them performed again at TBT, including “Holding Out for the a Hero,” sung by Ariel (Cowsert) and the girls, and “Let’s Hear it for the Boy,” done by Rusty (Senkowsky) and the company.

Another musical highlight has to be the beautiful “Almost, Paradise,” that Jones and Cowsert, as Ren and Ariel, sing late in Act II with palpable chemistry. Hilton and Usher also serve up a couple of moving ballads, “Can You Find it in Your Heart?” and “Heaven Help Me.”

There were a few times when all the lyrics during some songs weren’t totally distinguishable, but it’s early yet and adjustments will be made as the four-week run of the show continues on.

New Technical Director Mark Anthony Exline came up with an interesting set design that features movable pillars used to convey various locations. Cast members, while keeping in character, help to move the pillars and other set pieces on and off stage as required. Costumer Suni Travis also added to the overall look of the show by putting the cast in plenty of plaid shirts age/color appropriate attire.

In the end, the show becomes a satisfying tale of reconciliation and domestic healing, and one that drew a standing ovation from the opening night audience. Everyone in attendance seemed to appreciate this big, fun and high energetic production, and the two and a half hour run time flew (danced) by quickly.