New Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, Thursday 21st August, 2014
Familiar from the 1980s Kevin Bacon film, this is the story of Ren whose mother moves him from Chicago to the backwater town of Beaumont, where public dancing is banned by the town council, headed by a closed-minded but charismatic clergyman. Teenage rebellion is not far away, with newcomer Ren as the catalyst.
The New Alexandra’s STAGE EXPERIENCE project is an ambitious undertaking. A cast of 120 (that’s one hundred and twenty) youngsters flock on and off, every one of them giving their utmost. Director/choreographer Pollyann Tanner handles crowds with aplomb and also gets excellent performances from her main players, never for one second losing focus. It’s a remarkable achievement.
Matthew Russell leads the cast as Ren –an assured and skilful performance from this talented fifteen year old. Yes, that’s right: he’s only fifteen. He sings, dances and skips rope all at the same time without slipping a step, missing a note or stopping for breath. Great things must be ahead for this young man.
He is supported by a strong troupe of players. Molly Hope Williams (Ren’s mom) and Aneira Evans (Minister’s wife Vi) give their roles maturity and depth, and can certainly belt out the musical numbers when appropriate. Another belter is Georgia Anderson as preacher’s daughter Ariel (odd that he didn’t give her a Biblical name!), rebellious and misunderstood. Her “Holding Out For A Hero” is a rousing production number.
Outstanding is Nicole Appleby as fast-talking Rusty – she reminds me of Linda Lewis (oops, my age is showing) and her rendition of “Let’s Hear It For The Boy” is a highlight. Callum Connolly’s Willard is a splendid study in character acting, consistent, engaging and rounded. His big number “Mama Says” is a divine moment, slickly interpreted and executed – I have seen professional productions that fall miles short of this quality.
Man of the match for me though is Mark Stuart Walsh as the Reverend. His rich, deep singing voice has power and subtlety, and his characterisation brings warmth and vulnerability to what is essentially the villain’s role.
It’s an exhilarating production; the energy just pours off the stage. I have only one quibble and that’s with the sound – With a stage full of kids singing their heads off, the vocals just drop in the mix and the band overpowers them. This means that some of the big moments are diluted.
When it is revealed that the show has been put together in less than a fortnight, you realise it is more towering an achievement than you first imagined. Everyone else in the business may as well just retire.