Emily Padgett as Alex and Matthew Hydzik as Nick
in the national tour of Flashdance, The Musical.

Flashdance, The Musical

Directed & choreographed by Sergio Trujillo

Score by Robbie Roth & Robert Cary; book by Cary & Tom Hedley.

A review by Kathi E.B. Ellis.

Entire contents are copyright © 2012 Kathi E.B. Ellis. All rights reserved.

This week Louisville theatergoers become only the second American audiences to see the brand-new musical Flashdance; appropriately, the tour premiered in Pittsburgh earlier this month.  If opening night at The Kentucky Center provides any indication, this musical will be pleasing audiences nationwide on its way to a scheduled August 2013 Broadway engagement.

Flashdance was, of course, originally a 1983 movie set in steel town Pittsburgh, tracing the journey of Alex Owens (Emily Padgett on stage) from steel mill to dance academy. With the success of both movie and musical versions of Billy Elliott, we may wonder why it has taken so long for this movie, a far more obvious choice for a musical, to make its own transition from screen to stage. But here it is now. Previously, a 2010 stage version premiered in London. But what comes to Louisville this week is a re-tooled stage version – none of the songs that were created for London are part of this version, and director-choreographer Sergio Trujillo helms this production. The creative team of Tom Hedley (screenplay for the movie), Robbie Roth and Robert Cary carry over from London to the U.S.

The cast of the national tour includes two native Pittsburghers – Broadway performers Matthew Hydik and Rachelle Rak – who proudly claim their hometown connection in the program. Pittsburgh itself is an implicit character in the production, as with the movie which was filmed in the city, with projections of its iconic bridges (projection design Peter Nigrini) and tired brick alleys juxtaposed with interior images of the steel mill. These images are deftly interwoven onto a series of screens embedded in a complex system of panels that seamlessly create various Pittsburgh locations (scenic design by Klara Zieglerova). As the audience arrived in the Whitney, a screen filled the proscenium opening, on which were projected multiple, shifting images of the 80s fading as the performance began to the initials MTV, reminding us of how new and innovative that channel was in the early 80s.

One aspect this stage version of Flashdanceemphasizes more than the movie does is the state of the steel business in the 80s. This serves to ground the overall story in a larger social context, and it also provides the role of Nick Hurley (Hydik) with a more compelling character arc, as he strives within the family-run business to make a difference. The relationship between Alex and Hannah (Joann Cunningham), her dance mentor, is also more strongly drawn in the stage adaptation. There are other changes as movie subplots are discarded and characters’ names and dreams are changed and amalgamated to provide a more streamlined story for the stage.

In an interview, Mr. Trujillo alludes to the need to tell the stage story through dance, and he has created some effective sequences in which we see the classical etudes to which Alex aspires in contrast to the street dancing from which she has learned so many moves. This juxtaposition allows us to see both the commonalities between dance forms and the different demands these forms make on the human body. Break-dancer Ryan Carlson has some impressive solo moments during the production as well as leading a tight-knit ensemble in break-dancing sequences. Repeated brief pas de deux by Ballet dancers Brandt Martinez and Andrea Spiridonakos serve to emphasize the distance between Alex’s dream and the dancing she does nightly at Harry’s (nightclub). Members of the ensemble also become additional dancers at the inaccessible Shipley Academy; and while the ballet world has changed much in recent decades, 30 years ago the look of the ballet dancers would have been much more uniform – in body type and in clothing – than in this production. The dancing most closely mirrors the movie in the sequences in Harry’s and C.C.’s establishments, and it is here that audiences will hear the majority of the songs they remember from the movie. For those wondering, the iconic image of the “water chair” is recreated for the stage. Ms. Rak (Tess) and Dequina Moore (Kiki) are Alex’s dancing buddies, and their performances are far superior to the level of talent that these seedy joints could ever have considered hiring!

The production boasts 16 new songs, which blend well with the original songs from the movie. Aurally this is an immersion into the early 80s, thanks to the orchestrations of Doug Besterman. The high-energy ensemble numbers set time and place evocatively. Nick and Alex’s duets (“Hereand Now,” “Hang On”) provide a more tender perspective on their tempestuous relationship, and Nick’s solo, “Enough,” offers a glimpse into how Alex has overturned his life. Mr. Hydzik (whose Tony I would have preferred to have experienced in the recent Broadway revival of West Side Story) delivers this with an effective stillness and simplicity. But Flashdance is Alex’s story and here – far more than in the movie – it is a performer’s powerhouse. She sings and dances throughout the production, and Ms. Padgett delivers from the first welding flashes in the prologue through the final audition, “What a Feeling,” in which Alex triumphs. She is in command of the stage during the high-octane dance numbers and in the duet scenes with Nick or her friend, Gloria (Kelly Felthous). Both Ms. Felthous and David R. Gordon, in the role of Jimmy, deliver well-calibrated performances, though the downfall of Gloria is indicated so episodically that one could wish for a deeper exploration of that character. Jimmy is the most prescient of the characters, having faith in a city that has indeed overcome its late twentieth century decline.

Louisville audiences have seen the work of costume designer Tazewell Thompson on the stage of Actors Theatre of Louisville, and in this production he recreates the vibe of the 1980s in almost painful detail. Kudos, as well, to wig and hair designer Charles LaPointe, whose stylings evoke those big-hair days with precision.

For those who love the movie, there will be gripes about changes made; but this story line and the streamlined characters make sense for a stage musical.  For those who don’t care for the movie or who have never seen it, the story and the characters of the stage Flashdance are coherent on their own. If you’re in the mood for a feisty Cinderella story, where the heroine is determined to help herself and not just rely on Prince Charming, this may be your musical. And if you’re a fan of dance – almost any genre – Flashdancewill not disappoint.

Flashdance, The Musical

January 15 –20, 2012

PNC Broadway in Louisville

The Kentucky Center

501 West Main Street

Louisville, KY, 40202