REVIEW | “Flashdance-The Musical” Dances for Its Life

Broadway has seen no shortage of iconic, music-fueled films adapted for the stage in recent years, to varying degrees of success. “Sister Act” and “Footloose” met with mixed critical responses, but “Hairspray” knocked the ball out of the park, winning eight Tony Awards.  “Flashdance” is the latest Eighties film to get the Broadway musical treatment, and the musical is previewing with a national tour before it makes its way to New York later this year.

“Flashdance—The Musical” opened last night in the Kentucky Center’s Whitney Hall for the third stop on its tour. The stage adaptation is strong on performance and design, but some of the choices meant to fill out the slim original source material don’t add as much as they could.

“Flashdance” screenwriter Tom Hedley (book), Robert Cary (book and lyrics) and Robbie Roth (music and lyrics) comprise the principal creative team, alongside choreographer and director Sergio Trujillo, who led a complete overhaul of an unsuccessful early version of the show that ran quietly in London two years ago. Trujillo’s dazzling choreography is the star of this show, which could almost have dispensed with the dialogue to tell the story of Alex (Emily Padgett, a triple threat of dance talent, voice and charisma), a feisty steel worker who dreams of becoming a professional dancer, and her romance with Nick (Matthew Hyddzik), the grandson of the mill owner who fights his family on cost-saving measures that could lead to staff cuts.

Alex hones her craft by dancing at Harry’s Bar (Harry himself played by Matthew Henerson) at night, bonding with her fellow dancers and sweet waitress Gloria (Kelly Felthous), who’s romantically involved with Harry’s wannabe comedian nephew Jimmy (David R. Gordon). In her time off, Alex lingers around Shipley Academy of Dance, yearning for the nerve to audition, and spends time with her mentor Hannah (the delightful Jo Ann Cunningham), a former professional dancer and dance teacher who first saw Alex’s potential. As in the film, Alex’s big journey is to realize her potential and audition for the school, to take the big leap out of her blue-collar life and into the next chapter.

The show opens with a pastiche prologue dance number and delivers on its promise of blending classic and contemporary, ballet to breakdance, throughout the show. The roles of Alex’s fellow dancers, Tess and Kiki, are performed by the amazing Rachelle Rak and Dequina Moore, respectively, who steal every scene they are in and dance and sing powerful solos to “Manhunt” (Kiki styled as Grace Jones) and “I Love Rock and Roll” (Tess styled as Tina Turner). 

It’s difficult to see a stage adaptation of an iconic film and not compare it to the source material. For the most part, Hedley and Cary craft a storyline that does the original justice while adding some heftier story to characters like Hannah. But the overhauling of the Nick character, one of the most significant changes from the film, is a step in the wrong direction. In the movie, Nick is still Alex’s boss, but he’s a self-made man, confident and tough, not a clueless heir. It’s easy to see why they would be drawn to each other in spite of their differences in station. In contrast, the on-stage Nick is a clichéd rich kid, a bland pretty boy who struggles to create an identity separate from his family name, and his romance with Alex is a tired cross-tracks affair. There’s little compelling or new in this change, and precious subplot time is spent dwelling on his off-stage boardroom fights that could have been put to better use spotlighting Alex’s fellow dancers.

One of the most compelling elements of the film is the story’s open ending. In the film, (spoiler alert) Alex auditions for the academy, but the audience never learns whether or not she is admitted. Her elation in the last scene is pure triumph over fear. The musical brings the storyline to a neat finish, a less interesting choice. 

Musically, the producers resisted the easy temptation to turn “Flashdance” into a jukebox musical, and that’s commendable. While the chart-topping songs from the soundtrack are all included (“Maniac,” “I Love Rock and Roll,” “Manhunt,” “What a Feeling”) and handily outshine most of the original material, there are exceptions, like “Put It On,” a catchy, kicky backstage number by Kiki, Gloria, Tess and Alex that recalls the Pointer Sisters; the good-natured class tension male ensemble piece “Justice,” the witty dancer’s life spotlight song “Hannah’s Answer” and Jimmy’s rollicking Billy Joel-esque solo “Where I Belong” (though Gordon’s voice wasn’t quite up to the challenge Tuesday night). For the most part, the duets Alex and Nick share (“Dealbreaker,” “Here and Now”) are adequate, if not particularly memorable—“Hang On” is the exception. The show misses the opportunity to stage a transcendent scene for “Gloria” (which soundtracked one of the film’s most poignant moments), opting for a weak strip club number instead.

Jason Howland conducts the five-piece band, and I found myself simultaneously wishing for the richer sound a larger orchestra could provide and wondering why the band is allowed to overpower the singers, especially Padgett’s solos, an issue that crops up periodically on opening night for musicals in Whitney Hall.

Like the music videos the show references throughout, “Flashdance—The Musical” is impeccably designed. Klara Zieglerova’s industrial-chic set is gorgeous, reminiscent of her work on “Jersey Boys” but more layered and nuanced, and Paul (“Jesus Christ Superstar,” “Memphis,” “In the Heights”) Tazewell’s costumes pay homage to the cutting-edge fashion of the Eighties without slipping into parody or cliché (minor fashion quibble—the costume referencing Madonna’s iconic 1990 Gaultier cone bra is a jarring anachronism). Projection designer Peter Nigrini employs an intelligent and energetic use of video to evoke the fast-cut feel of music videos.

“Flashdance—The Musical” plays through Sunday at the Kentucky Center. 

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