Flashdance, The Musical Proves There's Only so Much You Can Do With Pole Dancing
A Broadway-bound maybe, baby
Photo courtesy TUTS
The set-up: Flashdance was originally conceived as a stage production, but Paramount asked the producers to develop a screenplay, and produced it as a film in 1983. The film starred Jennifer Beals and Michael Nouri, receiving negative reviews but became a smash hit at the box-office. A stage version opened in London in 2008 and toured the UK in 2009, with a West End production ending in 2011.
The U.S. production is directed and choreographed by Sergio Trujillo, who choreographed Memphis and Jersey Boys. It opened in Pittsburgh early this year and will tour 25 cities in the United States. Now in Houston, its next stops will be San Antonio, Dallas and Kansas City. A Broadway opening was announced but has since been delayed.
The production is anchored in a blue-collar world, alternating between a factory, a seedy nightclub and a nearby strip club, though the ladies never go topless. Alex, portrayed by Jillian Mueller, is an 18-year old welder who aspires to a career as a ballerina, though she has seen only one ballet at the age of 10. She yearns to attend the Shipley Dance Academy, presented here as an intimidating aspiration. Alex dances after work at the "good" night club, run by the Harry, played with easy-going affability by Matthew Henerson.
The owner of the factory is Nick Hurley, portrayed by Matthew Hydzik, who falls for Alex, and pursues her. Romance results, but Nick's attempt to help Alex audition for the Academy is perceived as meddling, and they break up, though it's clear from the etch-a-sketch plotting that this is but a bump on the rocky road of love. Hydzik has a magnetic presence, can hold the stage, and can sell a song - he is excellent.
Mueller has the difficult job of adding charm and charisma to Alex, who is brusque, insecure, and quick to take offense - she struggles manfully with the assignment, stopping short of success. This is largely a dance musical, and Mueller has mastered the high kick and the slide to the floor, and she punctuates a step with a toss of a mane of hair, but never seems to find the moments of grace and beauty that dance can provide.
Trujillo's choreography captures energy and a driving force, and breakdancer Ryan Carlson adds measurably to its success. But it is also repetitive, and all the choreography seems turbo-charged - there is only so much one can do with pole-dancing. My interest quickened when Jo Ann Cunningham appeared as Hannah, a former ballerina turned teacher, and her solo song, "Hannah's Answer" added some wit, poignancy and understated power to the production.
The events are filled out with a subplot of the romance of Gloria and Jimmy, played by Kelly Felthous and David F. Gordon, and both find ways to make their characters memorable. Gloria shares the stage at Harry's club with dancers Kiki (DeQuina Moore) and Tess (Katie Webber), both excellent, and Moore gets to deliver "Manhunt", though her four backup male dancers are inexplicably shrouded in shadows during the hit song. "Maniac" and "What a Feeling" retain their power and emotion, and I enjoyed the "Here and Now" duet of Alex and Nick.
The arc of the play highlights the solo audition of Alex at the Academy, and this is, curiously, supported by special effects and a plethora of backup dancers. This is show business, I know, but nonetheless it undermines the entire premise of the production. And inadvertently makes the point that Alex can't make it on her own - the opposite of what is intended.
Christian Whelan portrays the owner of the "bad" Chameleon Club, and lets us believe in his self-serving, devious bullying. Scene changes are handled smoothly with sliding panels and projections - I especially liked the projected portraits of the deceased dynastic owners of the factory; there is another subplot about the factory laying off workers. But this is a dance musical, first and foremost, and, while we can admire the energy and drive of steel-workers, their athleticisms do not deeply involve us, one of the goals of successful theater.
The verdict: Energetic dancing and a "girl makes good" plotline deliver a now-familiar narrative, with moments of power, but the two-dimensional obviousness of the script and its heavy reliance on strip club ambience limits its appeal.
Flashdance continues through June 16, from TUTS (Theatre Under the Stars) at Hobby Center, 800 Bagby. For information or ticketing, call 713-315-2525 or contact www.tuts.com.
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