Stage Struck Review

Reviews for theater within the greater Los Angeles area.

“Footloose” in Covina: CCPA’s Young Performers Institute unites adults and the young to good effect

Normally I do not review youth productions. There are several reasons for this, including the sheer fragility of being a child on stage – sometimes for the first time. To evaluate a show one must be prepared to be honest, and though there are sometimes delightful surprises in kid shows, there can also be moments where that debate between being truthful enough to be trusted by the readers and being gentle enough to keep someone’s spirits up becomes oppressive.

In the case of Covina Center for the Arts’ Young Performers Institute summer production of “Footloose,” it is possible to make an exception. Unique among local programs, its “youth” are high school and young college-aged performers playing age-appropriate parts, in a cast also containing adults with significant local theatrical experience. This hybrid proves a great showcase for its younger artists, and a chance to work with people who have kept the passion for a lifetime.

This “Footloose” is taken from the 1998 Broadway adaptation of the seminal 1984 film. To make room for the many musical numbers, the already somewhat simple story becomes even simpler. Ren McCormick and his mother arrive in the tiny town of Bomont to live with Ren’s aunt and uncle, after Ren’s father walks out. Basically a city boy used to the variety of life in the Chicago area, Ren must adjust to being the outsider in an insular place, and the stultified social life of a town all but ruled by a ferociously conservative pastor. Forms of music and entertainment Ren is used to – particularly dancing – are out of the question. Even so, his attraction to the pastor’s rebellious daughter Ariel grows.

Among the adults, highlights include Eric Cajiuat who finds that tricky balance as the pastor, displaying passionate conviction while still evoking the isolating toll it brings. As the pastor’s wife caught in an impossible position between the absolutes of her husband and the intense fury of her daughter, the show’s director Jill B. Gerber becomes the soul of sympathetic frustration. Doug Harbin delights in his stereotypically crusty athletic coach, and Jenna Vandergrift rolls in briefly but memorably as the tolerant owner of the local burger joint.

As for the youth, Max Herzfeld warms into a charming Ren, vibrant with enthusiasm. Alexandra Tahauri gives Ariel that “bad girl who could be a good girl” vibe, and sings well too, though she could use a little less rock-voice and a little more enunciation. Other standouts among a solid group of leads include Shaina Wexler as Ariel’s buddy Rusty. Her vibrancy, timing and commitment to her character power several important scenes. This is matched by Woody Buck’s gee-whiz country boy, who becomes the object of Rusty’s affection. The two are genuinely charming together and provide many of the show’s highlights.

The biggest drawback to doing a very, very episodic musical like this in a comparatively low-tech setting is the timing. Director Gerber has choreographed set changes to be quick and efficient, and keep the show moving as tightly as possible. Still, those on stage could use more “business,” as they easily devolve into the “standing around talking” mode. Speaking of choreography, Wexler is also the choreographer, and with the exception of a slightly awkward opening number, uses her castmates’ varying talents well. The scene in a cowboy dance hall is particularly effective.

Indeed, this “Footloose” is generally enjoyable. Clever tricks like using projections to turn the entire theater into the pastor’s church continuously make the audience a part of the action. The ensemble of performers, including those whose biographies claim this is their first show, evoke enthusiasm and finesse. Particularly affecting are the polished, lovely close harmony moments on songs like “Somebody’s Eyes” – a very difficult skill made to sound very easy. Musical director Mark Macalintal is to be congratulated.

Still, the only strong criticism one has is related to sound. The band accompanying these performers is amplified too loudly, sometimes drowning out important sung dialogue. And the performers’ microphones are unpredictable at best, cutting out on individuals at critical moments.

“Footloose” the movie has become a part of America’s cultural DNA. It even inspired the students in a small town to sue all the way to the Supreme Court demanding the right to dance at their school. Watching a new generation play with the old struggle between dreams, freedoms and the seemingly oppressive adult world is a lot of fun. Watching a new generation of performers begin their journey is even more so. Even if this isn’t ready for Broadway, it’s a fun evening.

What: “Footloose” When: Through August 19, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays Where: Covina Center for the Performing Arts, 104 N. Citrus Ave. in Covina How Much: $28 and $38 Info: (626) 331-8311, ext. 1 or http://www.covinacenter.com

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