By Joseph T. Rozmiarek
Advertiser Drama Critic
One expects "Footloose" to be a strong dance musical and is disappointed that it's not.
The season opener for Manoa Valley Theatre, directed and choreographed by Deanna Luster, has the look and feel of an adequate high school production and does not measure up to an organization that bills itself as "Honolulu's Off-Broadway Playhouse."
The unsatisfying outcome begins with the material. The stage adaptation of an original 1984 screenplay by Hawai'i's own Dean Pitchford has a sappy premise propped up by cardboard characterizations. Pitchford also wrote the lyrics to some on-and-off successful songs, got an adaptation assist from Walter Bobbie and music by Tom Snow.
But the show finds it hard to shake out of the doldrums created by a small town that has banned dancing after a tragic car crash that killed some of its teenagers.
The conflict comes when a big city transplant from Chicago goes head-to-head with the local minister and city council to lift the dancing prohibition. He dates the minister's daughter and challenges townsfolk assumptions.
Dancing ought to be the liberating vehicle that pulls the town out of its self-imposed mire, but in this production the choreography is sadly lackluster.
The opening number in a Chicago club lacks real fire, Act One closes with a gymnasium routine that is mainly jogging in place to the music, and the show's finale looks more like a mildly goosed junior prom than a big Broadway finish.
Arthur "AJ" Johansen is cast in the lead role of high-schooler Ren McCormack. We know Johansen can dance — we've seen him do it before, particularly in the standout Diamond Head Theatre production of "Swing!" But aside from some gymnastic flips, he doesn't get the chance to demonstrate much fancy footwork. It also doesn't help that, with his maturity and receding hairline, Johansen looks too old for the role, particularly in comparison to some real high-schoolers who are curiously cast in some of the show's adult roles.
Despite the obvious problems, some of the numbers work.
Jamie Rolfsmeyer and Kristi Kashimoto deliver the right message as a couple of middle-aged women who've learned to defer to the menfolk on "Learning To Be Silent." A quartet of small-town girls mentally break away from their limited prospects with "Holding Out For a Hero."
Heather Ensley-Maldonado punches up Act Two with "Let's Hear It For The Boy," which builds on some country two-stepping that is at least lively, though not fancy.
But the far-and-away best number in the show is Terry E. Howell Jr.'s lead on "Mama Says." It's a comic character number in which Howell not only carries the tune, but also gives it plenty of personality. He's backed up by Zo Acosta, Sean Jones, and Jared Duldulao, who sing delicious harmony.
Back at the main plot, Johansen lets love interest Tricia Marciel as Ariel carry their duet on "Almost Paradise," while Gordon Ing labors in the truly thankless role of Reverend Moore, turning him into a prototype puritan who goes morbidly morose at the thought of anybody having fun.
Musical director Nanilisa Pascua leads a small orchestra and gets her own solo number. MJ Matsushita's set design is a collage of corrugated metal barn doors and I beams, set against a starry sky and Chicago skyline.
In some respects, "Footloose" is hamstrung by its own hype since the plodding pedestrian storyline simply can't measure up to the expectation of explosive dance energy.