Surfight’s ‘Flashdance’ Fails to Live Up to Name

By RICK MELLERUP | Jul 03, 2019
Courtesy of: Studio 63

Beach Haven — English is a living language, subject to change.

Today the word flashdance represents a subset of flashmob, wherein a large group of people who have previously choreographed a dance assemble at an assigned time in a public space such as a shopping mall to perform for a sometimes stunned, often amused, but always surprised audience. Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” resulted in two of the most noted flashdances – 13,957 people dancing in the streets of Mexico City and the most improbable flashdance of all, performed by some 1,500 inmates in a Philippine prison yard.

It is easy to figure out how folks came up with the title of the 1983 movie “Flashdance,” the basis for the musical of the same name currently being performed at Surflight Theatre. Both revolve around the character of Alexandra “Alex” Owens (Lexi Baldachino in the Surflight production), an 18-year-old welder at a Pittsburgh steel factory who wants to become a professional dancer. Flash represents her day job; dance is her reason for being.

But the creators of the popular movie probably also had an earlier meaning of the word on their minds when they decided on a title. In the 1920s and 1930s, a form of tap dance, flash dance, developed that combined dance with acrobatics. The most prominent flash dancers were the Nicholas Brothers, Fayard and Harold. No less of an authority than Fred Astaire told the brothers their number in the 1943 African-American film “Stormy Weather” was the greatest movie musical scene ever made. The scene, which they climaxed by executing an amazing series of flying splits over each other’s backs while descending a grand staircase, can easily be found on the internet. Prepare to be amazed!

The dances in “Flashdance” the movie emulated the old-style flash dance, even if only to a small degree. It incorporated a then relatively new form of athletic dance, breakdancing, for a reason. Alex, you see, is untrained, has never had a single dance lesson. So her dancing, exemplified in the film’s climatic scene when she auditions for entry into a prestigious if stuffy ballet academy, is free form, grooving nicely with the song “What a Feeling.” Her dance may not show form but certainly fits the music, is athletic, and displays her inventiveness and passion.

The stage musical, however, doesn’t groove to anything.

The movie was rather short, checking in at 97 minutes, and actually didn’t include all that many dance scenes, mostly solo performances by Alex. When Tom Hedley and Robert Cary wrote the book for “Flashdance The Musical” they puffed up the screenplay in two ways.

They added, as musical theater almost demands, production numbers. That addition should have provided an opportunity for some 21st century flash dancing. It didn’t!

The show is mostly set in two bars – Harry’s (David Discenza) Bar, where Alex performs artistic, if sexy, numbers, and the Chameleon, owned by a sleaze called C.C. (Elijah Vasquez), which, in the movie, briefly features topless dancers. With most of the production numbers taking place in such joints the job of the female chorus is basically to look sexy. There’s very little originality in Michael A. Blackmon’s choreography, and he’s not to blame – you don’t expect tap, ballet, modern dance or breakdancing in strip clubs. By the way, C.C.’s nudes in the movie are turned into a theatrical version of bra-and-panties-wearers twerking. Forgive my age, but I refuse to call twerking dance!

Even more problematic, the settings leave the male chorus with nothing to do. They briefly appear as ballet dancers in a scene set in the Shipley Academy but are basically reduced to movement, not dance, in most other numbers, trying to fit in where there is no organic need for them.

All in all, the chorus, which was simply incredible in Surflight’s first show of the year, “Holiday Inn,” is wasted in “Flashdance.” I didn’t expect the Nicholas Brothers, but I did expect more breakdancing and leaping, tumbling and rolling. In other words, some flash.

Hedley and Carry also squeezed in a surfeit of plot lines that include a romance between Alex and the son of the steel mill’s owner, Nick Hurley (Logan Farine), another between Alex’s friend Gloria (Christa Steiner), who wants to make it in Hollywood, and Jimmy (Ryan Moroney), Harry’s nephew who wants to leave his life as a short order cook to become a comedian, and the competition between Harry’s Bar and the Chameleon Club. They were all included in the movie, but another subplot, Nick struggling with the possibility of having to lay off workers as his father demands, is new with the musical.

The problem is that each subplot demands its own songs, which cuts into the acting time, turning characters into caricatures. And while the songs borrowed from the movie, which themselves were borrowed from the hit lists of the early 1980s – “What a Feeling,” “I Love Rock ’n Roll,” “Maniac,” “Manhunt” and “Gloria” – remain, the additional songs, with music by Robbie Roth and lyrics by Roth and Cary, are far too predictable in both note progression (usually building to high notes that strained the voices of the Surflight cast) and rhymes.

Let me make this clear – I am not criticizing choreographer Blackmon, director Elizabeth Lucas or any of the cast. Working with this show’s limitations is akin to breathing underwater, impossible without special apparatus. That became apparent in Alex’s audition scene. Although Baldachino faithfully re-created Jennifer Beals’ moves (actually the moves of body doubles), the dance seems flat without the close-ups and slo-mo effects used in the movie.

The two standouts in the Surflight production were Sally Ann Swarm playing Hannah, an aged former ballet dancer and friend of Alex who encourages her to audition, and Ellen Kehr, who has moved from the theater’s aisles where she is a volunteer usher, to the stage where she plays Ms. Wilde, the director of the Shipley Academy who looks down her nose at the amateur Alex. Why? Their scenes were self-contained, not a string of snippets that the other actors had to deal with.

“Flashdance the Musical” has very little flash, other than legs and cleavage, and dance that is far from flash dance.

“Flashdance” will play through July 14. Tickets are $39 for adults and $29 for children 12 years of age and younger. They may be purchased online at surflight.org, by phone at 609-492-9477 or at the Beach Haven box office.

rickmellerup@thesandpaper.net

 

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