‘Footloose’ was energised.
Theatre-goers were shown how to cut loose at ‘Footloose’ this week at Brisbane Academy of Musical Theatre’s (BAMT) latest smash hit production. With one energetic bop after another, it certainly was a night of wide grins, tapping feet and applauding hands as audiences were welcomed to let it all out on the dance floor.
BAMT provides aspiring artists with training and performance opportunities to bolster their skills and help them on their way to achieving their goals. It is clear that a lot of thought and consideration goes into the selection of productions for each cohort, as ‘Footloose’ was perfectly matched to the energy, vitality and talent found in this group of young thespians.
‘Footloose’ is set in Bomont, a small American town, where Ren McCormack (Cristian Robba-Colley) and his mother, Ethel (Kelsey Todd) have just moved. Coming from Chicago where anything goes, Ren is shocked to learn the prudent and highly religious town is not only against drugs, smoking and alcohol but has made dancing illegal! As Ren slowly becomes embedded in the culture of the town, he shows his fellow students that dance is not something to be afraid of, but an outward expression of inner joy. While the content of the show is at times corny and trite, the BAMT students and creative team did an exemplary job of bringing joy and laughter to a cult classic film and musical.
All technical and visual elements worked together to create a memorable and joyful theatrical experience. Lighting design by Maegan Micola Von Furstenrecht complimented the mood of each scene perfectly while not pulling focus from the action on stage. An orange/yellow wash was used during the Bomont scenes which tied in with neutral costuming tones and set. As the students gradually found their groove throughout the show, the lighting plot likewise became more spunky and filled with life. The use of isolated lighting during the powerful trio, ‘Learning to be Silent’ held the audience’s focus and served as an effective emotional transition from the highly energised numbers.
Effective sound design is marked when audiences don’t notice the sound; it should entirely blend into the production and be the vessel for the narrative. Sound design and operation by John Tayler was just that. Levels were balanced with the music tracks and vocals were well mixed to ensure high notes did not peak in the output.
The set provided the perfect canvas for the actors to play on. The black box theatre was kitted out in wooden pieces with gorgeous textures and effective use of levels. It is a large space to fill with a fairly small cast, but these set design choices gave excellent directorial scope to position the cast in ways that made the large space feel intimate. A particularly notable element was the placement of the Moore family’s front door on a rise downstage right. The raised section of the stage perfectly communicated the shifting power dynamic that played out within the family. The physical and emotional distance between the Moore parents was further supported by this set design choice and added a layer of nuance.
Costuming and props were as effective as they were unobtrusive. The students of Bomont wore clothes with a neutral colour palette which represented both their character and the conservative life they led. As life was injected into the town, the show culminated in an explosion of colour as the title song ‘Footloose’ rang out through the theatre. In direct contrast, the most prudent council members of the town wore all white and shades of cream. These characters doubled as students and the simple change was marked by adding a blazer or glasses. The sublime characterisation of these actors also served to distinguish the roles.
Direction by Tim O’Connor took advantage of the extensive space and used levels to demonstrate the power imbalance at play in the town. While the production was extremely high energy, O’Connor found clear moments for the pacing to ebb and flow. Audiences were allowed to take a breather and these changes in dynamics were well managed and intentional. This intentionality in dynamics was further supported by music director, Dennett Hudson. Despite the frequency of high-energy numbers, Hudson supported the students in finding the light and shade in every song and it was clear that the cast were well trained in vocally blending with their fellow performers. Some characters lacked the focal finesse that was present in their cast mates, however, Hudson worked with the cast to deliver emotionally fueled and melodically correct performances. Choreography by Dan Venz was vibrant and energised, which perfectly suited the talents available within the cast. Venz implemented the physical set to his advantage and created dynamic choreography. BAMT has a wide range of talents within their cohort and the directorial team did an exemplary job in allowing each student to shine within their individuality.
Tayler Ramsay as Ariel Moore and Cristian Robba Colley as Ren McCormack were the perfect leading duo, and with chemistry to boot. Robba Colley oozed confidence however he was able to find moments of sensitivity within his performance, allowing audiences to wholly connect to his character. He delivered a vocally confident performance and breezed his way through the dance numbers. Ramsay shone as the not-so-reserved Ariel, and brought zeal and life to the character. She packed a punch in the dancing numbers and supported her skill on the dance floor with solid vocals and emotional intent.
The trio of misfits, Portia Morris as Wendy Jo, Bella Gordon as Urleen, and Kate Baxter as Rusty, were absolute hoots and delivered the best comedic performances in the production. Comedy roles are difficult to maneuver in musicals as they can easily sway into a pantomime style however, all three actresses navigated the comedy in their characters with great skill and believability amongst the madness. The vocals in ‘Somebody’s Eyes’ were an absolute standout and Baxter showed excellent prowess in ‘Holding out for a Hero’.
Eleanor Grieve as Vi Moore was the standout performance of the night. Bringing sensitivity, humour and impeccable vocals to the production, Grieve is certainly someone to look out for on the Brisbane theatre scene. Both Grieve, and Grant Couchman as Reverend Shaw Moore, acted through every moment and found beautiful truth in their struggles, individually and as a pair.
Something magical happens when you put a group of young, passionate people in a room and tell them to create something. ‘Footloose’ was not pitch-perfect at every moment; there were some fumbled steps and occasions when characters slipped in and out, but none of that really mattered. What truly shone through was the energy and passion of every single artist and the power of the ensemble. BAMT’s ‘Footloose’ brought audiences in and sent them away a little happier than they were before – and therein lies the power of theatre.
‘Footloose’ performs until Saturday, 3 April 2021 at Howard St Studios in Stafford. For more information visit the Brisbane Academy of Musical Theatre’s website.
Photography by Steph Sanders (Let Me Wander Photography)