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Almost paradise
Casting lifts Cultural Arts Theatre’s <i>Footloose</i>
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In his program notes, Cultural Arts Theatre Director D. J. Queenan, a self-proclaimed “victim of the ‘80s,” says he was originally skeptical about bringing the 1998 musical version of the Reagan-era film Footloose to a Savannah stage.

“But upon closer inspection I began to recall that this story wasn’t about a specific time or place,” Queenan writes. “It tells us that fear and regret are the opposite of promise and hope.”

However, to me the interesting thing about Footloose is how precisely it mirrors the top-down authoritarian values of the ‘80s. In their push to lift the draconian ban on dancing in their little redneck town, those zany Footloose kids win in the end not because they thumb their nose at authority, but because they successfully appeal to the town’s strongman, the Rev. Shaw Moore, to relax his hardline stance. In a sense, this only serves to reinforce Rev. Moore’s quasi-dictatorial powers.

Oh, hell, who am I kidding? Footloose is about dancing! And singing! And more dancing! There’s certainly a lot of both in this energetic, engaging production of Footloose at the Lucas Theatre by the city of Savannah’s Cultural Arts Theatre.

While the opening night performance I saw was about 10 percent too footloose in musical tempo and lighting -- and about 50 percent too loose in sound design, the only really problematic issue -- by the time you read this I feel sure the show will have been tightened up to snuff, because all the basic ingredients of a great production are there.

Queenan has done his usual excellent job in casting, and continues to cement what may be his greatest legacy: Harmoniously combining up-and-coming young talent with established local veterans.

Since Kevin Bacon isn’t available, I can imagine no better young local actor to play the lead role of Ren McCormack than Ryan Brown, who absolutely nails the character’s intriguing blend of smart-ass attitude and goofy naivete. It’s a deceptively hard combination -- not to mention all the singing and dancing -- but Brown makes it look effortless, and is clearly enjoying himself. Which, after all, is what cutting footloose is all about (sorry, couldn’t resist).

Jen Whiteman makes a very believable love interest for McCormick as Rev. Moore’s daughter Ariel. The pair’s key scene comes with the duet on the hit “Almost Paradise,” and they knock it out of the park.

Jamie Keena is spot-on as Rev. Moore, and his beautiful English tenor is always a delight to hear in any show he does. I initially wanted Keena to project more menace, but because he wisely resists the temptation to turn Rev. Moore into a character out of a Flannery O’Connor novel, his epiphany at the end of the show -- oh, c’mon, I’m not actually giving anything away, am I? -- is all the more believable and touching.

Carol Melton, herself blessed with a divine singing voice, is quietly outstanding as Moore’s wife Vi.

Huge kudos to two supporting actors who very nearly run off with Footloose: Patrick Hinnegan as Ariel’s greaser boyfriend Chuck, and Ron King as Ren’s bud Willard. Hinnegan shows outrageous showmanship in his (too-few) solo numbers, and King is blessed with a combined mastery of song, dance and comedic timing.

I continue to be impressed with Queenan’s stage vision, which combines a real eye for beauty with a painstaking attention to detail. The tableau where Rev. Moore gathers the choir around him, precisely echoing the classic portrait of the Sermon on the Mount, is genius.

Travis Dodd provides the show’s savvy and very watchable choreography, though I’d say his true talent is with small, tight groups rather than mass dance numbers. I counted six times that songs ended with a long chorus line of actors at the foot of the stage singing directly into the crowd, which is probably a couple of times too many.

Bottom line, the only possible downside to seeing this show is that you’ll no doubt have the song “Footloose” going through your head for many hours afterward. If you can deal with that, by all means check it out.

Cultural Arts Theatre performs Footloose, the Musical July 20 and 21 at 8 p.m. and July 22 at 3 p.m. at the Lucas Theatre for the Arts. Tickets are $17 general admission and $12 for seniors and students and are available by calling 525-5050 or