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Sunday, 13 January 2013 00:19

Predictable but toe-tapping: 'Flashdance' at the Peabody

Written by Sheila R. Schultz
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Predictable but toe-tapping: 'Flashdance' at the Peabody
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It's a cliché. Follow your dreams. If you are Alex Owens (Emily Padgett), you will realize your dreams after overcoming pernicious self-doubt and other obstacles. It's better to leap and fall than to never leap at all. Padgett nails the lead with verve. Her dance and vocal skills are excellent. Her acting chops get little workout because the book is clumsy and flimsy .

Alex is an 18-year old apprentice welder at Hurley's Steel Mill in Pittsburgh in the early 1980's.  Toiling in the factory, this Cinderella longs for nightfall when she's transformed into a dazzling performer at Harry's nightclub. Her dancing and imaginative choreography outclass the dingy venue, but she doesn't mind.  Alex longs to join the ranks of classical ballet students at the Shipley Dance Academy, where swans pirouette en pointe.

A self-taught dance prodigy, her graceful moves combine the best of street dancing, improvisation and modern dance.  Without formal training, the girl believes she has no chance of winning an audition there.  She may be right.  At the mill, Nick Hurley, the boss's grandson, dons a hard hat to look like one of the guys. Nobody's fooled. Burdened with good looks and wealth, he is smitten with Alex.   She rebuffs his advances ... at first.   Can they overcome class differences?  Oh, please!

More interesting to this critic are Alex's best friend, Gloria (Kelly Felthous) and Gloria's boyfriend, Jimmy (David R. Gordon), a wannabe stand-up comic.  Each has a dream, no less precious than Alex's.  Will they succeed?  As secondary characters, their chances are slim. If they do succeed, it cheapens Alex's struggle. They both fail, but at least they have each other.   Kiss kiss.   Their romance is more down-to-earth than Alex's red rose bouquet fairy tale.

Musically and lyrically, the duets of Gloria and Jimmy provide a welcome contrast to the throbbing disco numbers. These duets credibly advance the plot and humanize the characters. Other songs in the score are less successful. Many of them awkwardly convey themes and conflicts that should emerge more naturally through dialogue. The story is predictable, but like the jukebox musical Mama Mia, its disco numbers set our toes a-tapping.

The nightclub dancers' glitzy costumes and headwear (Paul Tazewell) are a visual treat.  Tazewell's meticulous fashion details reflect a level of sophistication that undercuts the intended tackiness of the costumes, but who cares?  These are works of art.  Kudos to the entire cast for its athletic dancing.  I broke a sweat just watching.   Director/Choreographer Sergio Trujillo has a gift for capturing the street rhythms of everyday life.  Michael Jackson's choreographic influence is evident.

At 90+ minutes, Act I is too long.  An artist knows when to stop.  Alex's obstacles are too easily surmounted.  The promise of a happy ending kills any suspense.  The musical is adapted from the 1983 blockbuster film, Flashdance.  Nostalgia sells.  The movie and its award-winning music developed a loyal following. Presumably, those fans represent a significant portion of the target audience.

Even I feel shortchanged.  Why are "Maniac," "Gloria" and other disco hits from the soundtrack given short shrift in the musical?    Several of the musical's new songs could have been eliminated without leaving a gap in the plot.  While quick-change scenery and energetic dancing proceed at a brisk clip, the unnecessary songs create a drag on the pacing.

Colorful lighting and other visual effects provide breathtaking enhancement.  They are used more sparingly than I expected, but still prove distracting at times. The play opens in a Pittsburgh steel mill.   I generally dislike minimalism in set design, but this is one place where stark scaffolding is justified.  Its angularity contrasts with the fluidity of dance moves from ballet students who flit in and out of scenes to represent Alex's imagination.  No doubt the musical will appeal to a multi-generational audience.  It's not perfect, but entertaining enough.

"Flashdance, The Musical" runs through January 13, 2013 at the Peabody Opera House, 1400 Market Street.  Further information is available at http://peabodyoperahouse.com. Tickets may be purchased through Ticketmaster.  For photos, videos and trivia about "Flashdance, The Musical", check www.flashdancethemusical.com.

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