Rousing 'Footloose' also raises important questions

How do you strike a balance between protecting your children from bad influences and letting them experience life?
“Footloose,” the last 2015 Huron Playhouse production — a sensitive, heartfelt effort that pulses with energy — is much more than a rockin’ experience. It’s also deeper than a simple rebellious boy tale.
The musical, at its heart, is about a repressive community that, while loving and well meaning, has stifled its teens, robbing them of their youth.
The setting’s a small southern town in the 1980s, a time some adults may have not been as aware as in 2015 of possible dangerous influences. Still, they looked out for their young.
In the play, the Rev. Shaw Moore lost his son, who died with other youngsters in a car crash, resulting, perhaps, from negligent driving after intense partying.
Five years may have passed, but the preacher’s instinct to protect the present youth from a similar tragedy remains steadfast. The town council, of which the preacher’s a member, has banned by ordinance dancing.
Into this repressive atmosphere comes fun-loving teen Ren McCormack, who’s shocked to learn about this law. Over time, the magnetic effect he has on the town’s teenagers is obvious. Life’s meant to be lived to the fullest, especially for young people, goes his thinking.
“Footloose” pits the stern, rigid preacher against the northern outside teen who just wants to have fun. The minister’s daughter, Ariel, also has a rebellious streak and McCormack’s influence just encourages her.
The movie’s main music features the vivacious, memorable title song, but the stage adaptation includes a nice contrasting array of kinetic melodies and contemplative ones, if not exactly ones that’ll stick with you.
The songs take us into the characters’ minds, hearts and souls, allowing us to vicariously experience their feelings, moods and thoughts. Consider the tension-filled “Somebody’s Eyes,” during which the characters express that the adults seem to be watching their every move.
In a smart directorial choice, director Nick Hrutkay uses the second floor of scenic designer Dominic DeRiso’s versatile, easily movable set for the song. A couple characters sing the song from above, barely visible to the characters below. This reinforces the stealth environment. Even the spotlights move, as though they were eyes peering from here to there, always on the watch.
The preacher sings the prayerful “Heaven Help Me” in a particularly vulnerable state. He’s experiencing an inner conflict; he doesn’t want to be his daughter’s “jailer” but he doesn’t want to fail her. The song gives us a rare chance to see someone who leads prayer and guides others to bare his own soul naked before the Lord, showing his humanity.
At one point, the teenagers sing “I’m Free” while the reverend sings “Heaven Help Me.” Conflicting emotions clash nicely here.
In that moment, Andrew Keller, as the preacher, conveys a touching reverence and modesty that makes you feel for him. Keller also conveys the minister’s stern, rigid demeanor when necessary, without being hateful.
As daughter Ariel, Janina Koehl Bradshaw has an assertive, independent manner, accentuated by her blouse; she wears it knotted above her belly button, suggesting non-conformity.
Evan A. LaChance has a loose, confident, independent and fun-loving demeanor as McCormack and delivers an impassioned speech before the town council — although director Hrutkay curiously has him facing his fellow teens, instead of council members, basically preaching to the choir. Nevertheless, he generally makes good use of the playing space, using the second level for town council members, those in authority, to sit while the teenagers are a level below. Sending cast members into the audience seems questionable a choice, as “Footloose” doesn’t feel like a show in which to break the “fourth wall.”
McCormack and Ariel are convincing as lovers. It’s easy to root for them and against town bad boy Chuck Cranston (an in-your-face Dereis Lambert), who’s in competition for Ariel.
Confident characters such as McCormack and Ariel are contrasted nicely by the more innocent Willard Hewitt (a convincing, unsophisticated but lovable Benjamin Frankart).
Then there’s the pastor’s wife, Vi (played as a strong woman and peacekeeper by Grace Wipfli.)
The lighting by Tori Mays is appropriately softer during contemplative scenes and songs and more intense during louder ones.
The characters start out wearing black and white, accept McCormack and his mother (an empowering, loving Katherine Jones). As the show progresses, they wear brighter colors, becoming less rigid and more open to living.
Characters undergo change, which makes for interesting, worthwhile theater.
One of them is the preacher, who learns a valuable lesson from the teenager with whom he’s in direct conflict for most of the show.
The pastor lost a son.
McCormack basically lost his father, who walked away from the boy’s life.
Sometimes those who change us are people we’d think would be the last ones to do so.

Aaron Krause is a Reflector staff writer. Reach him at akrause@norwalkreflector.com