Backstage with Brock Musical Theatre: Kicking Off Footloose

Photo Credit: Zoe Archambault

Photo Credit: Zoe Archambault

There’s a lot more than cowboy boots and rollerblades to Brock Musical Theatre’s (BMT) show this year. It’s been a tough road to the stage, with some unforeseen obstacles popping up on the way. Yet, no one in the musical has let these problems get them down; through the power of hard work and unwavering positivity, the cast and crew are about to put on what looks to be a stunning performance.

Footloose is the production this year, following up last year’s sold-out crowd-pleaser Heathers.

Footloose, to me, is a very important show at this time,” said Lia Strazzeri, director of Footloose. “The show highlights the importance of expressing yourself through dance and music and how that helps to create your identity as a young individual especially in your teenage years. That’s what got me through high school, was finding my passion in theatre and music and dance. […] It’s very important for young individuals to be able to express themselves and who they are.”

The show, based on a 1984 cult classic film and built around songs that still receive a wealth of radio play to this day, is widely known already, but, as always, BMT is putting their own flair on this version.

“We have a different set up in that our set itself will be a very static set, so we’ll have a set of risers on stage that we’ll be able to create levels with and that’s about it. We’ve changed the characters up a bit, as we did have to work with a bit of a different talent pool this time around. Unfortunately, not a lot of guys tend to come out for musical theatre, so we have to try and incorporate as many guys into the show without having their roles clash if we have to cast someone in two roles. As much as I’d love to gender-bend some roles, our contracts generally don’t allow us to do that,” said Marcus Tranquilli, the show’s vocal director. “The character of Betty Blast, for instance. In the original show, she’s supposed to be some mid 60s-mid 70s diner owner who goes around on rollerskates but she can barely move around herself. Whereas this time around, the way the person we’ve cast as Betty Blast has chosen to interpret it is a much younger 19-20 year old diner manager who is much more able to skate around. She does have authority over some of the kids but it’s a little more relatable now.”

Strazzeri expressed that some of this may come from the fact she opts to give her cast members the ability to fully explore their characters, only directing where they need some extra help.

“I give the cast a lot of freedom in their character choices and where they go, of course giving direction where needed. But, most of the choices, they’ve made,” said Strazzeri, “[My job has] been just a little more helping to direct along the correct path, but they’ve been able to choose their own journey as they go.”

Other directors may opt to enforce their own artistic vision, but Strazzeri sees something special in her cast.

“The people in it [make Footloose special]. Every production is different but I think our people are really what make the show and what makes it so special for us,” said Strazzeri. “They bring something new, they have this gut intuition of who the characters are and they’ve just been able to bring it to a different level of where these characters are, who they are, where they come from.”

The cast and crew alike hammered home mentions of long hours and hard work time and time again but the production process of Footloose saw more problems than prior years. Tranquilli stated that a lot of standard processes didn’t go as smoothly as they typically would. As a result, this year’s production lost rehearsal time.

“Our audition process took a little longer, we had a bit more trouble getting the rooms than in previous years plus we had an issue with trying to get the rights to the show,” said Tranquilli. “We finally got the rights to Footloose, we went through the audition process but by the time everything was said and done it was probably about the second week of November, whereas in past years we’ve started as early as the last week of September or middle of October so it took a few weeks. Almost a month that we lost, basically, is a huge difference. This time around, we’re having rehearsals almost every other day, whereas in the past we’d have maybe three rehearsals a week, two on the weekdays and one on the weekend. Now, it’s a Wednesday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday every week. So it’s definitely been a bigger time commitment.”

While this seems to present many problems, Strazzeri said that the cast and crew took every potential downfall in stride.

“Any time we’ve hit a bump in the road, everyone’s been super flexible and they’ve stuck by each other through all the hard times and the stress,” said Strazzeri. “Everyone’s been able to pull each other up when we need it.”

Tyler Langos, who plays Reverend Shaw Moore and is a three-year Brock Musical Theatre veteran, attributes this to the positive attitudes of everyone involved.

“The cast is always wonderful because no one is forced to be in the musical, this is everyone’s choice to be in the musical. Everyone at least has some work ethic to get through the auditions and they have to at least like musicals, so everyone in there is a cheerful person. I’m not working with anyone who has a negative mood,” said Langos. “Hanging out with those people for hours on end, that feels great.”

What’s astounding, though, is that you’d hardly guess there have been such issues from watching the cast rehearse. Strazzeri explained to me that this year, they had decided to split up the different sections of the show — vocals, choreography and blocking — so that the cast would have a really good idea of what was needed for each section. This was a brand new approach for the group, but seems to have served its purpose perfectly. The cast nails every dance move — even those on rollerblades. In the few moments where someone forgot the next line and needed to request it, they recover quickly and climb back into their character’s skin with ease.

“[The cast and crew] are amazing and they’re beyond talented. It’s been so amazing not only to watch the members from last year grow but also the new members, to see them come out of their shell from where they were at the beginning versus where they are now,” said Strazzeri. “Just watching all the bonding that’s happened in the group as well, everyone clicked instantly and they just became a family right from the start, which was so good to see.”

The energy that radiates from the song-and-dance numbers are infectious and exciting but even the cast’s acting is enthralling. They all play off of each other beautifully, their real-life friendships either translating through their on-stage relationships or either seemingly ceasing to exist the moment they transform into their characters. The entire cast couldn’t be present at the rehearsal that I attended, so at times, cast members would have no one to play off of at all — yet, their conviction and emotion was ever-present even when speaking to thin air.

Maiya Irwin and Gordon Restivo star as the two young leads — the Reverend’s daughter Ariel and Ren respectively — and the chemistry between them is palpable. As Ariel and Ren, they fit perfectly together.

Irwin is stunning as Ariel, swaggering around in her cowboy boots with unmatched confidence. Irwin’s got all the moxie of the rebellious teenager down, but lets a heart-achingly vulnerable side shine through when she needs to with equal believability.

Restivo carries a captivating charm as Ren; he has an accessible kind of charisma that allows him to leap off the stage with boldness and self-assurance but maintain a level of warmth to Ren. He pulls him off of the pages of the script and transforms him into a friend to the audience.

“What drew me to the role is that he’s a super energetic character. He’s very outgoing, very witty, he’s kind of got a dry sarcasm to him and I think that vibes a lot with my humour and what I like to laugh at,” said Restivo. “Other than that, who wouldn’t want to try and do the lead role? Super stressful, though. Big thing to take on.”

In particular, Restivo is a revelation. This is his first year with BMT and attending Brock in general. After being convinced to audition by Langos, a high school friend of his, he managed to snag a leading role his first go.

“Being a lead is tough but it’s worth it,” said Restivo. “It’s a lot of me sitting at a desk trying to learn lines. I went through that yesterday, a couple hundred I had to memorize. That’s probably the most time consuming part. Other than that, it’s just being at rehearsals, being professional, on time, always ready to work, always ready to try and put in as much effort as possible. It can be pretty tiring but as long as you give it your all most of the time, it really brings something special to the show.”

Langos also secured a lead role during his first year taking part in the musical. He nabbed one once again for his third year, taking on the role of Reverend Shaw Moore, Ariel’s strict father who is partially responsible for Bomont’s ban on music and dancing. He commands the stage with a stern authority, serious as ever, a far cry from how he comes off in person and a testament to his acting ability. On top of a lead role, however, he also works as the assistant vocal director, a gig which he says he enjoys just as much as being on stage performing.

“I really like, specifically, having big numbers where there’s multiple people singing different harmonies layered on top of each other, I really like teaching those,” he said. “You teach that for two hours and then hearing what it sounds like after only two hours of getting this talented group of people to sing those — it can really sound great.”

The hard work is crucial, but the internal support system that Brock Musical Theatre seems to provide certainly assists in creating the pitch perfect performance. Wordlessly, they all know when to buckle down and get serious but are quick to find light moments in between it all.

“It’s a mixture between ‘hey, you guys are my friends and this is really chillaxing’ and ‘oh my goodness, you guys are also running the show and I have to respect you and listen to what you’re saying and put in this extra work’ so it’s very hard,” said Restivo. “It’s a balance between a fun club and a serious ‘we’re putting on a performance’, but I think everybody is actually quite good at finding that mixture of professionalism and friendship.”

At the rehearsal I attended, I witnessed one arduous performance after the other, the stress of listening to director’s notes and having to take them all down for the next run. But, I also witnessed cast members off to the side, mouthing along to the words and dancing; I witnessed the room erupting into supportive cheers and clapping the moment a run through of a scene ended.

Strazzeri, director and mother hen in equal measures, dashed this way and that getting everything together with a smile on her face and an accommodating, warm attitude, taking the place of cast members who weren’t in attendance with the conviction they were supposed to have but also leaping forward to fix costume details that were slightly out of place.

At the heart of this, of course, is people with a genuine love for what they do — BMT is completely student-run and puts on shows simply for their love of musical theatre.

“It’s a way of incorporating a lot of the artistic talent that someone can possess on stage. If you’re just acting, you might not be the best actor in the world but if you can sing really well, you can incorporate that and they can play off each other,” said Tranquilli. “I enjoy musical theatre more [than plays] because it brings two things I love together and also incorporates more art into a performance. It incorporates a lot more ensemble aspects because in musical theatre, when everyone is singing, you just add layers to what’s happening on stage.”

“You can just do stuff without judgement. I say that in the sense of, I could never just sing in front of my other friends or go around people and act and try and show emotion without judgement. You can just come in here and you can do wacky, crazy, silly things and you can do really serious, emotional things and everybody’s always open and always supportive to whatever you do,” said Restivo. “That’s not something you can do in other clubs, or even other friend groups, or maybe not at home or anything like that. So it’s nice to come to a space where everything you do is at least tolerated, respected.”

Clearly, BMT is more than just people coming together to bond over a common interest – it’s a support system, on and off the stage.

“In total, with Brock Musical Theatre, I’d say it’s definitely been the highest point of my university career. It’s been the most positive influence of my university career. I’ve made some of my lifelong friends in this club,” said Tranquilli.

Even Restivo, who transferred to Brock knowing almost no one, was made to feel at home in BMT quite quickly.

“[Joining an established group] was very stressful at first. I kind of felt like I had something to prove but that wasn’t actually the case, everyone was super open and supportive. I’m not the best dancer so there was a lot of nice support. People helping me out, helping me learn the dances and supporting me, telling me, ‘hey, I might actually be able to dance a little bit’,” said Restivo. “It’s my first year at Brock and I didn’t have a ton of friends coming in but I think I’m going to have a ton of friends coming out.”

Based on the rehearsal I saw, Footloose will surely be yet another memorable show for BMT. Despite roadblocks, they’ve managed to prosper and pull off something beautiful and it’s truly their genuine passion for what they do and supportive group dynamic that’s led them there. Tranquilli echoed this sentiment, though he was far from the only one to do it.

“It’s just so great to find like-minded people who truly want to be here and who just want to put something on stage for the sake of putting it on stage, for sharing art with other people, because to me that’s what art is,”

said Tranquilli. “You create art to share with other people and hopefully to impart to other people the joy you had in creating it. So if that is what [BMT is] able to do then I’m happy.”

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