After being postponed for two years, American Stage in the Park returns to Demens Landing Park in St. Petersburg with Footloose — The Musical on April 6. It runs through May 8.
Based on the 1984 movie, the Broadway musical adapted by Dean Pitchford and Walter Bobbie follows Ren McCormack, a big-city teen who moves to a tiny rural town where dancing has been outlawed. Feeling out of place, he inspires other teens to rebel against the strict rules implemented by the local reverend.
American Stage in the Park’s last show was Mamma Mia!, in 2019. Footloose was scheduled for March 2020, but the pandemic forced the production to be postponed. Jacksonville-based director and choreographer Shain Stroff had already choreographed the show for its original run.
This is Stroff’s fifth American Stage in the Park show — he has choreographed five, directed two and associate-directed one. He thinks this might be the biggest yet, with more production elements and a large cast, who he said is very excited.
“The park show is new for a large proportion of the cast,” he said. “We only have a few people who’ve done park shows before in the past who really know what to expect. So that’s really fun energy to add in there.”
Stroff shelved Footloose for about a year after it was postponed, then produced it at Jacksonville’s Alhambra Theatre, where he is the the associate producer and resident choreographer. He had to change the choreography for the much smaller stage, but said that helped him mold the show into the most ideal version he envisioned for the park.
Because so much time had passed, many of the original cast members had moved on, and the show had to be recast.
Stroff’s process for choreographing a show starts with listening to the music numerous times, and envisioning what he wants it to look like. Although he typically avoids watching choreography from other stage productions of a musical because he doesn’t want it to seep into his own, he recently watched the movie Footloose and will nod to the final scene in this production.
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The production is set in 1982, and Stroff used 1980s jazz dance for most of the choreography, something he said he’s been wanting to do for a long time.
“It’s just so much fun. It’s very athletic,” he said. “The numbers are very, very high energy. I think this is probably the most high-energy dance musical we’ve done in the park thus far.”
He said cast members are working hard, with a seven-hour rehearsal on the five-minute finale alone.
There will be a full band on stage, incorporated into the set. The score includes favorites from the movie’s soundtrack, like Let’s Hear It for the Boy and Kenny Loggins’ title track, Footloose, as well as original songs written for the musical with music by Tom Snow and lyrics by Pitchford.
The initial Broadway musical that debuted in 1998 wasn’t met with great reception, and there have been many versions between that and the one American Stage is presenting. Stroff said this is the best version, and the music works really well.
“It took a while to get it right, because people expected this big ‘80s dance musical, but there is really a beautiful story to be told within Footloose,” he said. “And that was the part that kind of needed a little bit of ironing out.”
Can Footloose — The Musical hold up for today’s audiences? Stroff thinks so. The plot reveals that the Rev. Shaw Moore lost his son along with three other teens in a fatal car crash. Stroff likened the town full of survivors needing relief and growth to the desire to go back to our normal lives after the pandemic.
John Perez, who is also American Stage’s education and engagement associate, plays the role of Moore. As a 28-year-old who doesn’t have kids, he said the role is mature for him but he can relate to the concept of loss and family trauma.
Similar to Stroff’s process, Perez avoided watching the movie version because he didn’t want his performance to be influenced by the role John Lithgow portrayed. He plans to watch it after the production ends.
Perez thinks the play’s theme of banning dancing holds up today with all of the divisiveness in the world; he pointed to current political topics like the so-called Don’t Say Gay bill.
“I’m kind of witnessing a lot of this firsthand, as we all are,” he said. “What’s interesting, though, is playing a character who is seemingly on the other side of what my personal belief would be and trying to understand that I’m not looking to play ... someone who is malicious or kind of bad for the sake of being bad.”
He’s trying to come from the character’s lack of understanding and discomfort with change.
Will the reverend eventually come around and possibly even ... dance?
No spoilers, but stick around to the end, Perez said.
“I hope that anyone who comes to see this show is ready to just kind of let the woes of the world go for a couple hours. And just kick back, relax, kick off your Sunday shoes.”
If you go
Footloose — The Musical opens April 6 and runs through May 8. 8 p.m. Wednesdays-Sundays. April 6-7 performances are $21 or pay what you can at the gate and are general lawn seating only. $21-$27 for general lawn and premium blanket seating; $48 for reserved chair seating. Tickets for the opening night Gala Under the Stars on April 8 are $200. No outside alcohol or pets are allowed into the park, by city ordinance. Food and beverages (both alcoholic and non) are available at concessions. Only chairs without legs (stadium seats) are allowed in the general lawn and premium blanket seating areas. Demens Landing Park, Bayshore Drive and Second Ave. S, St. Petersburg. 727-823-7529. americanstage.org.