This week, the Muny gets a taste of the 1980s with Tom Snow and Dean Pitchford’s “Footloose,” the crowd-pleasing tale of a recently transplanted teen trying to find his place, and maybe a new love, among his peers. The heartfelt and engaging musical also features pop songs written by prominent musicians from the era that have audiences clapping and singing along from the first number through the rousing finale. 

Based on the poplar 1984 movie of the same title, “Footloose” introduces audiences to high school student Ren and his mom Ethel. After Ren’s dad unexpectedly abandons the two, they move from their home in Chicago to Bomont, a small rural town in the middle of nowhere. Reverend Moore, a preacher with a closed mind and rebellious daughter, controls the town with hellfire sermons and his seat on the city council. His daughter Ariel is smart, spirited and good looking, with a reputation as the town’s “bad girl.” She dates Chuck, an abusive high school dropout, just to get under her father’s skin. Naturally, Ren immediately falls for her, but their path to finding love is as twisted as it is dotted by memorable tunes.

Mason Reeves and McKenzie Kurtz are well matched as the young lovers. Reeves brings a likeable demeanor and refreshing lack of ego to Ren’s character, perfectly capturing teenage confusion and a desire to stand out with the need to fit in. Kurtz adds a sassy but not entirely disrespectful tone to Ariel. She also successfully conveys her character’s conflict and needs, and shines when she’s trying to connect with her father as well as when she shares her poetry graffiti with Ren. And, though Kurtz’ voice is bigger and more polished than Reeves, their duets are particularly strong and their solos compelling. Even Reeves occasional vocal crack feels charming and authentically teenaged. 

‘Footloose’ continues it upbeat, sing-along run at The Muny through July 24, photos by Philip Hamer.

The other teens central to the plot are portrayed in winning and convincing performances by Khailah Johnson as Rusty, Maggie Kuntz as Urleen, Katja Rivera Yanko as Wend Jo, Eli Mayer as Willard Hewitt, Andrew Alstat as Chuck Cranston, Christopher Tipps as Lyle, and Jonathan Savage as Travis. Johnson and Mayer are adorable as quirky but shy types who can’t express their feelings for each other, and Mayer and Reeves prove to be adept comedians in several of their scenes. Darlesia Cearcy is sympathetic as Ethel, Jeremy Kushnier appropriately hardheaded as the determined Reverend Moore, Heather Ayers nurturing and kind as Vi Moore and Patrick Blindauer annoyingly accurate as Coach Dunbar, a man with a mean-streak who fawns over the reverend.

Director Christian Borle keeps the show moving at an exciting pace, without losing the lovely personal exchanges that give the musical real heart. A number of small moments are spotlighted with the slightest pause, and though a few of the bigger moments seem rushed, the show hits all the right buttons. Jessica Hartman’s choreography is a perfectly stylized mix of old and new, and the big numbers are especially satisfying. The Muny artistic staff also effectively blends smart scenic design by Tim Mackabee with Greg Emetaz video designs, Rob Denton’s lights, costumes by Leon Dobkowski and wig design by Kelley Jordan. The one glaring miss is the Moore house, where a table and chairs set against an outdoor backdrop feels noticeably out of place and underwhelming compared to the company’s usual excellence. 

Though the show starts out a little slow and hesitant, but finds its rhythm with Kurtz’ strong take on “I Need A Hero”and really takes off from that point. In addition, the title track “Footloose,” which effectively bookends the show, ”Can You Find it in Your Heart,” “Almost Paradise” and a knockout version of “Let’s Hear It for the Boy” are highlights. The result is a fun production that’s a bit uneven, but filled with good-natured fun and memorable songs.

An abundance of catchy pop tunes from the 1980s and endearing performances from a predominantly young and always enthusiastic cast proves solidly entertaining. Stars Reeves and Kurtz are a couple you want to cheer for, and they turn in relatable performances that capture the uncertainty and exuberance of teens while the music pulsates with a rock and roll attitude that’s infectious. Striking a rebellious chord that’s genuinely appealing, “Footloose” builds in excitement with each song, creating a joyful crescendo that has the audience dancing along with the actors for the closing number.

At The Muny through July 24. For more information call (314) 361-1900 or visit www.muny.org.

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