The stage musical based on the 80’s classic deftly depicts some heartfelt issues
By Eric Marchese
For many who’ve seen the 1984 film “Footloose,” the stage version sparks the same kind of fun.
“On the surface, ‘Footloose’ is this fun musical about rebellious teens who just want to dance,” director Ella Wyatt said. “Add in some amazing ’80s tunes, and what’s not to love?”
Finding a way to make a large-scale, dance-oriented show like “Footloose” work within No Square’s 85-seat Laguna Beach space can be a challenge.
Wyatt said that with Sabrina Harper as her choreographer, “I know everything will work. She’s truly incredible.” Wyatt tapped Harper’s talents for “School of Rock” as well as last summer’s “Cry-Baby,” No Square’s first show after the pandemic.
In fact, Wyatt said she sees similarities between “Footloose” and “Cry-Baby” that made her jump at the chance to put “Footloose” on No Square’s stage.
“One of the reasons we chose this show is because we had such a great time doing ‘Cry-Baby.’ We wanted to do another show that would feature a mostly college-aged cast, but also had featured roles for adults, so in that way” the shows are similar.
While the venue may pose logistical challenges, Wyatt said it’s also one of the biggest advantages for those seeing the show.
“One of my favorite things about No Square is the intimacy you get as an audience member.”
“I always tell the actors to include the audience,” Wyatt said. When characters in the show are in church, “the audience is part of the congregation. When we’re in the high school gym, the audience is also there as part of the class. They aren’t just watching the show, they are almost a part of it, and you don’t get that in a lot of theaters.”
For Wyatt, “Footloose” is something of a family affair. Her dad, Don Wallschlaeger, acted in shows while a high school and college student. He then joined a theater company in Chicago, working in the scene shop for the shows for which he wasn’t cast.
As he now owns and runs his own design and scene shop in Los Angeles for the film and TV industries, Wyatt tapped him to help her with the “Footloose” scenic design.
“I came up with a really cool set design for this show,” she said. “I don’t often have an intricate set built, but I feel like the bridge, which figures prominently in ‘Footloose,’ is such a significant part of the show. Not only is it a location in the show, but it also represents the bridge between parents and children, as well as the past, present, and future.”
She’s happy with the results, especially in the way it enhances the themes of “Footloose” and “adds to the overall feel of the show.”
Two of the best-known songs in the show come directly from the film version: Title tune “Footloose,” by Kenny Loggins, and “Let’s Hear It for the Boy,” by Deniece Williams – both of which were nominated for the Academy Award for Best Original Song.
The stage version’s book is by Dean Pitchford and Walter Bobbie, and Pitchford wrote lyrics for the songs written for the show, with music by Tom Snow.
In following events in two small towns in 1980 and ’81, Pitchford came up with “Footloose.” The story and characters depicted in the film (and its stage adaptation) started with events in the town of Elmore City, Oklahoma, in 1898, when it was founded.
At that time, a minister from the nearby town of Hennepin, Okla., opined that dancing always led to heavy drinking and that drinking, in turn, resulted in sexual carousal.
Aiming to decrease the amount of drinking, Elmore City’s founders banned all dancing of any kind.
Because the students of the town’s high school weren’t allowed to dance, the school had never held a spring prom. The school’s junior class received national news coverage in February, 1980, when it requested permission to hold a junior prom.
Four of the five members of the school board were split on whether to overturn the ban so that the prom could be held. The 2-2 tie was broken when school board president Raymond Lee spoke the words “Let ’em dance.”
A year later, a similar event occurred in a small town in Washington state. It, too, received national attention which Pitchford noticed, leading him to dream up “Footloose.”
The figurative “bridge between parents and children” referred to by Wyatt is the action of adults finding a way to connect with teenagers.
Wyatt said “the thing that makes ‘Footloose’ special is that it is so much more” than just a collection of wonderful songs. “It is also a story about forgiveness, learning to move on, and finding your voice.”
The theme of “finding your voice” is realized in the song “Learning to Be Silent,” which Wyatt said “is about keeping your thoughts to yourself when you want to speak out.”
She said the song, more than any other in the show, “really strikes a chord for me.” While singing it, its three women characters “don’t have the confidence to speak out,” but by the end of “Footloose,” “they find their voices – and that’s really important.”
Eric Marchese has written about numerous subjects over more than 38 years as a freelance and staff journalist for a wide variety of publications, but is best known as a critic, feature writer and news reporter covering theater and the arts throughout Orange County and beyond.
Location: No Square Theatre, 384 Legion Street, Laguna Beach
Run dates/curtain times: August 5-14. 7:30 p.m. Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays; 2 and 7:30 p.m. August 13; 7:30 p.m. August 11 (special autism spectrum performance)
Suitability: Ages 10 and older
Information: 949-715-0333, nosquare.org