I was a young girl in a Midwestern Baptist town in Illinois. A town filled with old blue haired ladies, dogs that nap in the street and a local preacher who relied upon the generosity of the parishioners for cookies and meatloaf dinners. It was a town not too dissimilar from Bomont. It was a stereotypical farm town upbringing with Levis, boots and beer, and all the crazy shenanigans that bored country kids get themselves into.
My high school crowd could easily be identified as those that would leave our community and those that would stay. In October 1984, just as the corn was harvested from the fields, Footloose came to our uniplex theater and provided those that would leave the hope that even small town rebels with a big city itch could have a future out there somewhere beyond the wheat and the soybean fields.
Fast forward 35 years and I am half way around the world, in the Middle East, at the New York University Arts Center watching a cast of 30-40 expats with a Russell Stovers box of accents, perform Footloose. A movie so Americana that I can smell the hay.
Leaping and dancing before the Lord.” Ren : Ecclesiastes assures us… that there is a time for every purpose under heaven. A time to laugh… and a time to weep. A time to mourn… and there is a time to dance.
Abu Dhabi Choral Group (ADCG) kicked off its Sunday shoes and cut loose in big-haired style to the delight of a large audience as its opening show – Footloose – burst onto the stage of New York University Arts Center for a five-night run. It’s a big, multi-colored production, full of fun, drama, romance, dance and hit songs, all delivered with bucket-loads of enthusiasm.
The opening scene has Kenny Loggins pumping through the speakers as dancers with Aquanet hair wearing multiple bursts of neon leotards vibrated across the stage. An assorted mix of local talent and chronic enthusiasm, ADCG consists of a few veterans, a new team of performers plucked from the local schools and a few moms/dads who are keeping their creative spark ignited.
With Director Craig Kelly, Musical Director Caroline Kelly, and Choreographer Fiona Madden in control, Footloose is an ensemble that literally brings a cheering audience to their feet. The score features the ever popular 80’s hit songs Footloose, Holding Out for a Hero. Let’s Hear it for the Boy, and Somebody’s Eyes. It is a perfect compilation for a nostalgic child of the 80’s and for all of those who wish they were.
Footloose tells the story of Ren McCormack (Derek Jung) a feisty Chicago teenager, who along with his mother (Shana Ahmed), moves to the small Midwestern town of Bomont after Ren’s father abandons them. In Bomont, dancing and modern music have been banned at the demand of the up-tight local minister Reverend Shaw (Rami Alshihabi) whose personality is tempered by the gentle disposition of his wife Vi (Fiona Goss). Jung’s portrayal of Ren is far sweeter and more boy next door than I remember Kevin Bacon’s character to be. Making it very easy for the crowd to cheer for him during those awkward moments such as the roller skating, cheeseburger hat wearing, waiter at Burger Blast.
Ren’s efforts to first fit in, and then change things in his new home, where life for the younger generation has been stifled following a tragedy five years earlier; has been especially difficult to do. After losing his son in the tragedy Reverend Shaw has struggled to move past the sorrow. One of my favorite performances of the production was from Rami Alshihabi (Reverend) and Fiona Goss (wife Vi) portraying the role of grieving parents, and subsequently, a couple who have disconnected. Their collective talents were one of the highlights of the show.
The role of Ariel Moore, the Reverend’s daughter, was played by new comer and music teacher Maya Mitsuyasu. After losing several leading ladies at ADCG, it was nice to see Mitsuyasu fill the void. It cannot be easy finding a leading lady that can both sing and dance but ADCG got lucky. Mitsuyasu played a believable girl that every boy in town has kissed. She was coquettish, cute, and had a great set of musical pipes to belt out the music that makes Footloose so popular. I hope to see more of her in future productions.
Holding Out for a Hero takes place towards the middle of Act One, and features the Reverend’s daughter Ariel (Maya Mitsuyasu), and her three friends; the fun and talented Rusty (Judi Olson), Urleen (Sarah Lloyd), and Wendy Jo (Victoria Alexis Wilson). All three ladies daydreaming about their hopes of finding the perfect man after realizing that maybe Ariel’s dead-end boyfriend Chuck (played by Nico Keyter) isn’t such a keeper. Almost Paradise is a little slower tempo, but no less striking. It sets a hopeful, romantic scene between Ren and Ariel who finally find themselves alone at the top of the bridge that started the town’s troubles, and with a shift in heart that is bringing them closer together.
*Side note on Nico Keyter, his vocals were impressive and I really hope to see more of him in upcoming productions.
As Ren encourages his classmates to seek their own freedom, we get hooked on the beat of Let’s Hear it for the Boy scene when Rusty, Ariel, Ren, and his best friend Willard (Shera-Lea Saunders who plays an adorably sweet character) sneak off to a club 100 miles outside of town so they can dance. When Willard admits that he cannot dance, Rusty and friends begin to sing, and create the perfect environment for him to learn to move his feet. The Opening Night audience took a special liking to Saunder’s goofy character and the entire packed house was applauding for Willard’s victory. Shera-Leah Saunders is an ADCG veteran who has taken on a few nontraditional cross-gender acting roles such as playing Gomez in Adam’s Family. Regardless of the role she always manages to be a crowd favorite with her comedic spin on every character she embraces.
One of the great pleasures of an evening at the theatre is sitting back, suspending reality for a couple of hours and enjoying the ability of the performers, musicians and their behind-the-scenes team to transport you to different places, times and dramas. Knowing those working so hard to deliver that slice of escapism take to the stage as a hobby rather than to earn their living, definitely adds to the pleasure.
ADCG’s Footloose is an event to experience. I loved escaping back to the cornfields, my denim, and my Baptist roots where dancing isn’t allowed. Although it was a pleasant trip down memory lane; it also showed me how far I have come as I sit in the theater of New York University in Abu Dhabi. Thanks for the escape ADCG!
Since 1977, musically inclined expatriates and locals alike have found a warm welcome in the Abu Dhabi Choral Group (ADCG), a four part harmony choir that celebrates the Broadway Musical. ADCG is comprised of men and women from all over the world representing 15+ nationalities and languages spoken with talents ranging from first time performers to seasoned veterans. With active membership currently averaging at 50 performers per season, the group currently presents two major performances each year- in the spring a traditionally staged Broadway musical and in the fall a concert style musical review. Recent shows include The Addams Family (2016), Legally Blonde The Musical (2015), Curtains (2014), The Wedding Singer (2013), Once Upon a Mattress (2012), Urine Town (2011), Disney’s Beauty and the Beast (2010), Meredith Willson’s The Music Man (2009) and Cole Porter’s Anything Goes (2008).
As the group moves into its fourth decade in Abu Dhabi, we have some ambitious plans for the future which include finding a permanent home where we can rehearse, perform and house our sets and costumes. As a non-profit organization we rely heavily on community sponsorship, individual donations, ticket sales and membership dues to aid in our annual operational expenses- 100% of which go right back into the community in the form of hiring local tailors, carpenters, musicians, technicians and rental fees at the local theater houses.
While Abu Dhabi’s plan to become a major centre of cultural excellence within the next decade is in full effect, we believe that as a long-standing community musical group we have a role to play in bringing that plan to fruition by enhancing awareness and appreciation of musical performance. (Abu Dhabi Choral Group. Retrieved June 16, 2019)
Some photos provided by ADCG.