It seems that many of my favorite shows to come from Summer Stock Austin, brainchild of theatrical talents Michael McKelvey and Ginger Morris, always come from surprising sources. Just a few years ago I was so wowed by "Legally Blonde: the Musical" that I picked it as my musical of the year, and the company seems set to perform a repeat after their energetic, fun, and surprisingly heartfelt production of "Footloose: The Musical". Pulling from the classic 1980s film of the same name, "Footloose" brings us plenty of eighties favorites, such as "Almost Paradise", "Let's Hear it For the Boy", and of coure, the title track itself, but also provides plenty of lavish musical numbers, fun character work, and some remarkable acting from some of its young performers.
Many of the best performers at Summer Stock seem to come from out of nowhere, as is the case with Mariel Ardilla, a recent high school graduate who absolutely steals the show as the female lead, Ariel. From the first number, she comes roaring out the gate, a pillar of fire, bursting with a stunning energy. As the play goes on, however, she softens, cools, showing genuine pathos through her performance. That she's close to teenage-hood herself makes her angst and passion that much more palpable, as she gives one of the most believable performances in the piece, and when she opens her mouth to sing, get ready to fall out of your seat. From tone, to control, to range, she is, by far, one of the best voices to hit Austin stages in some time, and it's heartbreaking that she will soon be leaving the Capital City for college, since she could have made a major spot for herself in the in the Austin musical scene. Her chemistry with her other actors is undeniable, which reaches its zenith in her and Donelvan Thigpen's rousing rendition of "Almost Paradise", which sparks so violently with chemistry that you fear the Long Center's Rollins Theatre might be set aflame.
One of the things that sets "Footloose" above other musicals is the "Greek Chorus" of high school girls that constantly chime in, creating intriguing dynamics, texture, and and fullness to numbers. Though a group, they are not afraid to create their own individual dynamic, with each member having their time to shine, but it's Suzannah Metzger's Rusty that stands out most prominently of the group. She brings a plucky adorableness to the role, with a smile that absolutely lights up the stage, and when she gets her chance to belt out her own number, "Let's Hear It for the Boy", you can't help but beam wide yourself. Her love interest, Willard, played by Kyle Coughlin, also gets some choice moments to shine, as he brings some of the biggest laughs of the piece.
Having attended the last five years of Summer Stock Austin, I've gotten to see Donelvan Thigpen grow up as a performer. From his earliest years as a background dancer, to his small roles as members of the ensemble, Thigpen has been slowly rising in the Summer Stock circles for years, and it's truly a delight to see him taking center stage in "Footloose". Playing the role of Ren, made famous for Kevin Bacon, the actor plays the character with a low-key charm. While at first you wonder if he's underplaying it, you see soon that his every man appeal helps him create chemistry with those around him, playing off of them with polished skill. His dance moves certain don't falter either, as he shows off remarkable footwork throughout.
The heart of "Footloose" may very well lie in the hands of Vincent Hooper, whose grave and stolid preacher is one of the most complex beasts in the play. Though he acts as the central antagonist through most of the work, you never get a sense of malice or deviousness from him, but instead see a conflicted man, battling with himself over what is right. The entire performance is a testament to the acting skill of Hooper, as he, despite his youth, is able to show us the doubt, the fear, the struggle, making us forget how young he truly is. Indeed, there are moments where you're reminded of a young of Sidney Poitier, especially as he rushes to stop a book burning near the play's end.
Pulling in a team of talented youngsters, Summer Stock has once again created one of the biggest surprises of the summer, helped in no small part by director Ginger Rollins' choreography, which is simply stunning to behold, especially as it's performed to a tee by these young performers. With this and "Chicago", Summer Stock has once again cemented itself as one of the best theatrical experiences of the year, and the only truly awful part is that we're going to have wait another year to have this experience again.
"Footloose" is playing through August 10 at the Long Center's Rollins Theatre. For more information, and to purchase tickets, visit summerstockaustin.org.