Stage review: The numbers are terrific in 'Flashdance,' but this musical feels bloated
Emily Padgett is steeltown girl Alex and Matthew Hydzik portrays her boss/boyfriend Nick in the national tour of "Flashdance the Musical."
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OK, since this is the premiere of a new version of "Flashdance the Musical" (different from the one that spent a few years in the United Kingdom) and since Pittsburgh is the first stop on its shakedown national tour, I'll break my usual rule and start out by giving it a tentative grade.
As follows: this is not, it turns out, one of those occasions of Pittsburgh triumph, like a Super Bowl or World Series (remember them?). It's more like an expected midseason victory or maybe just a tie.
But enough score keeping. After all, this is a musical we claim as partly our own because the story, both in the 1983 movie and this stage version, is set right here in Pittsburgh in the latter days of our steel industry. So it's fitting the musical should start here, and we want it to do well.
In many ways, it does.
In spite of the changes that obsessive fans will no doubt start to enumerate on the Internet, it retains the major bones of the movie's engaging fantasy. Feisty young Alex works in a steel mill as a welder by day and dances in a friendly neighborhood bar (not a strip joint!) at night. She dreams of studying classical dance. Meanwhile she's involved with her young boss, scion of the company owner. And there are several similar side-plots, each pitting desire against hard reality.
It's a likable story, a pure Cinderella plot where the spunky girl gets the prince and lives happily ever after (or at least until Stephen Sondheim explores the flip side). We enjoy her eventual victory, no matter that we know it's coming.
And we have a hero to root for, a hometown, working-class girl who's determined to make it on her own and is also supportive of her friends. It doesn't hurt that Emily Padgett's Alex is very pretty (made to look very like Jennifer Beals from the movie) and can dance up a leggy storm. Alex's only weakness is lack of confidence, with which we can certainly sympathize.
There are also supporting characters to care for. Former Sewickley resident Matthew Hydzik's Nick is rather bland, but that's no fault of the stalwart Mr. Hydzik -- it's just that wealthy guys don't get the sympathy due to feisty underdogs.
More appealing are Alex' pals, sassy Tess and worldly Kiki, the one played by Pittsburgh's own Rachelle Rak, the very essence of a gutsy theatrical gypsy, and the other by DeQuina Moore, deliciously sharp-tongued.
Then there's the hapless second couple, weak-willed Gloria (Kelly Felthous) and weaker-willed Jimmy (David Gordon). Although they're both objects of pity, she can dance, and he really snaps into focus when he gets to sing.
And that's not all, "Flashdance the Musical" also asks us to care about Alex's crusty mentor (JoAnn Cunningham), her feisty caregiver (Thursday Farrar) -- there's an awful lot of "feisty" on that stage -- and bar owner Harry (Matthew Henerson). The only guy we don't have to care about is the villain, played with slick contempt by Christian Whelan.
If you have read through those three paragraphs it must occur to you, as it has to me, that one of the show's problems is just too many supporting roles whom we're asked to care about. This isn't Shakespeare or August Wilson, where everyone matters. It's a musical, and it feels cluttered. I could suggest which side-stories could go, but I'll leave that to the pros.
Even a Cinderella story can have sociological dimension, of course, so the class tension here is interesting, if rather simplistically handled. Even more interesting is the related face-off between Alex's own expressive dance and the codified classicism of ballet. I could almost wish there were a way for her to glory in her own idiosyncratic power and turn down the ballet school at the end.
After all, do we really want her to get into the Shipley Academy? Sure, we want her to get what she wants, because she's our girl, the one we invest in. But if she eventually graduates into this demanding profession, won't she do it at the cost of that street grit and individuality that we love in her? OK, I guess not: Billy Elliott goes to ballet school, Eliza Doolittle stays with her new life, and so on.
The book by Tom Hedley (who's been with "Flashdance" since the beginning) and Robert Cary (and possibly with some remnants of Joe Eszterhas' contributions to the movie) is efficient but pretty predictable, except for an occasional touch of tonic realism and some welcome laughs. As to the lyrics by Mr. Cary and Robbie Roth, I could understand as much as I felt I needed or wanted to.
The score, credited to Mr. Roth, is a mixed bag. Obviously we are most responsive to the hits from the movie -- "Gloria," "Maniac," "What a Feeling." If you're like me, you won't be able to get them out of your head, but that's because they were already there. I can't really pick favorites among the many new songs, and a few just add bloat.
The show's design is generally strong. Klara Zieglerova (sets) and the many other designers use sliding walls, other architectural elements, drapes and lots of projections (kudos to Peter Nigrini) -- some realistic (let's hear it for the bridges of Pittsburgh), some not -- to move us quickly through a generally industrial world, with the ballet school reappearing with regularity for social/aesthetic contrast.
I've left the best to last. As you'd expect, that's the dancing, choreographed by director Sergio Trujillo.
He has those dancers working hard, and we're glad they do, although I'd trim this a bit, too. In my section of the audience (rear of the dress circle) there was much learned discussion about what was appropriate to the early '80s and what has sneaked in from later. But the show doesn't specify when it takes place. I guess you can imagine what you want.
It is, after all, a fantasy. If anything, this version tries too hard to make sense, which flattens it out. An 18-year-old girl (or did I hear 17? -- but this Alex seems to be in her mid-20s) is too old to start ballet training and too young to be a welder in a steel mill. So what? We didn't care in the movie, just as we didn't care that Alex could exit the Carnegie Music Hall and find herself on the South Side or wherever it was. It's make-believe! Why not stop trying to make so much sense and glory in the wish-fulfilling fable?
First Published January 5, 2013 12:00 am