High school musical

Stage review: Mars Area tackles serious issues in 'Footloose'

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Rebellion is in the air — albeit genteel rebellion, delivered by high school musical comedy.

Last weekend at South Fayette High School I saw “The Music Man,” in which rural and urban cultures clash gently in the candy-striped world of 1912 small-town Iowa. I also saw “Footloose” at Mars Area High School, also about a small town (“Bomont,” wherever that is), where the culture clash has a more contemporary immediacy.

Of course, some clash of cultures and generations goes on in every high school every day. As in “Grease,” “Bye Bye Birdie” and “West Side Story,” other musicals with a high proportion of teenage characters, the basic generational clash in “Footloose” is between the ins and the outs, the socially familiar and unfamiliar.

The specific occasion is the arrival in Bomont of teenage Ren and his mother, direct from the noisy world of Chicago. Ren discovers Bomont doesn’t have much to do, the high school is suspicious of the new kid and (more surprisingly) a town ordinance forbids dancing. That’s the doing of the town’s charismatic, earnest and very conservative leader, the Rev. Shaw Moore.

You may know all this from the 1984 Kevin Bacon movie or maybe the 2011 remake. The book of this 1998 stage musical was adapted from the movie by Dean Pitchford (who wrote the original screenplay) and Walter Bobbie, then set to a score mainly by Pitchford and Dean Snow. It had a modest success on Broadway, where Pittsburgh’s Billy Hartung played, improbably, the villain; it has toured; and it makes its debut at the Civic Light Opera this summer.

Under the caring stage direction of Charlesa Fassinger, last week’s production at Mars Area told the story well. “Footloose” is a natural for high school, with its story about generational conflicts in the high school years. In addition, the stage musical softens the original movie script (Ariel, the young heroine, doesn’t sleep around any more), and the touring version now available to high schools has been softened further.

Although Ren’s antagonist, Rev. Moore, fanatically associates dancing with rock 'n' roll, drugs and sexuality, he turns out to be a caring man who just needs a reminder that the Bible praises dancing and a chance to understand Ren’s emotions. Presto, he reconciles himself with his daughter, who has of course already fallen for Ren.

In other words, it ends up feel-good all around. But that doesn’t detract from the serious emotional conflicts it dramatizes in the process. For example, “Somebody’s Eyes,” in which someone is always watching, doubtless refers to most small towns (I can’t speak specifically for Mars). And “Learning to be Silent” is poignant about the oppression of women, movingly sung (individually but simultaneously) by Ariel, Ren’s mother and Rev. Moore’s wife.

Up-tempo and better-known are “Let’s Hear It for the Boy,” “Mama Says” and the title song. The capable rock ensemble of three pros and four students was led by choral director Marie Andrascik.

Chris Saunders, who toured with “Footloose” in 2008, provided the choreography needed in a show about the power of dance. Some numbers were fine, such as the one with basketballs and skipping ropes. But the ensemble could have used more energy and abandon. Too often it seemed tentative.

For an example, they could have looked to Ariel’s lively three-girl posse, led by the vivacious Rusty (Catherine Paletta). She also teamed up with T.J. Pieffer, the most natural actor in the show, whose Willard had comic physicality and good timing. Together, they made an engaging comic duo in the musical comedy tradition of endearing second couples.

As Ren, Gregory Campbell has a pleasant stage presence. Although he had an intensity that might rub an older generation wrong, we always knew he wasn’t a bad kid. Lindsay Seipp, a leggy, long-haired blonde, conveyed Ariel’s constant anxiety.

Sara Lofstrom and Valerie Cesare were solid as the two mothers, especially the latter, with the cast’s most appealing voice. Some of the small roles also stood out, such as Callie Drennen as the funny boss in the burger shop. If I could pick out one member of the ensemble, it would be Allen Shaffer, who was committed to everything he did, a quality too rare among amateur actors.

The hardest roles in high school musicals are the adults at mid-life. Here, the greatest burden fell on Rev. Moore, and Nicholas Pecora did an honorable job portraying his stubborn rectitude.

Oddly, the printed program was the slimmest I’ve ever seen in a high school, without any of the usual pages and pages of ads and family congratulations. No problem there, but I admit I was shocked to find no lobby eats at intermissions. No bake sale is one thing, but not even a can of pop or candy bar? Sounds like a distant version of the prudery in Bomont.

I’m just saying.

On the other hand, I admired the art hanging in the school lobby, including the suggestive captions. And come to think of it, there are also some suggestive double entendres in “Footloose.” Mars Area should be commended for tackling a show that touches on real issues in real language that high school kids can recognize.

Go to www.post-gazette.com/ae/theater-dance for more coverage of high school musicals, including reviews by high school students of other schools’ shows and a master list of 117 musicals in Western Pennsylvania and the three regional showcases in May.

Senior theater critic Christopher Rawson: 412-216-1944. Mars Area is the 67th high school where Mr. Rawson has reviewed a musical since starting in 1991.

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