By BRUCE DENNILL
Footloose / Directed by Matthew Counihan / Redhill School, Sandton, Johannesburg 7
In a short informal speech just before the premier of Redhill School’s production of Footloose began, the school’s executive head (and show producer) Joseph Gerassi highlighted the foolishness of making arts programmes the first funding cuts when budgets are tight, citing – among other things – the impact being creative, or being part of a creative team, has on a youngster’s confidence. The link to the show, which tells the story of a young man who relocates to a small town where his artistic expression is substantially supressed, is obvious, but it was the message itself, and the way Gerassi expressed it (in short, “get on board or get out of the way”), that was most exciting – that Redhill as a school is committed to going against the grain in terms of promoting arts and artistic expression, but beyond that, that there is a hope that this would be part of a greater mindset change in the school’s community, and then beyond that to Johannesburg and South Africa.
With that vision in mind, it’s probably fair to say that the audience were expecting something of high quality but would, conceptually, agree that whatever happened was a step in the right direction. Happily, the cast and crew delivered the former, and had an obvious blast doing it.
A great deal of credit must go to director Matthew Counihan and choreographer Phillida Le Roux-Liebenberg. The piece often required the large ensemble to all be onstage and dancing, with each young performer having what looked like a single square foot of stage each in which to complete their routine. And through all of that – and other moments where a slightly fudged sound or lighting cue might have created some confusion – not a single cast member ever faltered, broke the fourth wall or looked uncertain of themselves. That speaks to these performers (presumably mostly rookies) being not only well-drilled but remarkably assured of both what they were supposed to do and their ability to do it, confirming the strength and value of the leadership from the creative team.
Interestingly, and perhaps because this is a school production, staged on school grounds, the fairly fluffy premise of Footloose – even by musicals standards, the plot feels forced – comes across as more meaningful and important than in other versions. This is probably largely down to the commitment of the performers as much as anything, with the actors convincing as the archetypes that they portray.
Komani Hara as Ren commands every scene he’s in (which is most of them). He sings well and moves superbly, with all the charisma necessary to be a character who is both a troublemaker and a zeitgeist-shifting activist. Hammond Samba, as the conservative, influential Reverend Shaw, is outstanding, as is Talullah Memani as his wife Vi, a smaller role, but one she fully inhabits. Leah Lerato Dieterich, as Ariel, the Shaw’s daughter and the object of Ren’s affection, is sassy, spirited and compelling, and the duo of Benjamin Harrison as Willard and Tayla Alexander as Rusty provide great comic relief as the central characters’ friends and sidekicks.
Any of the above and a good number of their cast-mates will, on this evidence, have a good chance of some success should they choose acting as a career after graduation, and even where that is not the case, the greater understanding (for the scholars and their families and communities) of what is required to stage and market a production will certainly affect the appreciation of the arts in general in that group. And each of them has already proved the wisdom of the strategy Gerassi suggested, with their confidence and elation being unmistakeable.