It would seem like a no brainer to turn Flashdance into a stage musical. Nostalgia is a powerful seller, and many an 80’s kid rewound their VHS copies to oblivion. The 1983 film is told with the logic of a musical, with just enough dialogue to get us to the next MTV-like dance montage.
The film, for all its sex appeal and collarless sweatshirts, is incredibly thin on plot. It’s not even 90 minutes before the credits roll. Alex (Julia Macchio) holds down two jobs – welder and night-club dancer – and longs to audition for the Shipley Dance academy. After not very many twists and turns (well, narrative wise anyway, her dance routines are another matter), she gets her chance. Cue leg-warmers, cue What a Feeling.
So to get a two-act musical out of the property, writers Tom Hedley (who wrote the original screenplay) and Robert Cary, have made more of the economic destitution of the Pittsburgh town. Both of Alex’s workplaces are in financial trouble. The nightclub is losing customers to the strip-club down the road. Her boss at the steel company, Nick Hurley (Ryan Neal Green) has been told to make layoffs.
With no dependents, it would normally be last in, first out for Alex, if it wasn’t that Nick had taken a shine to her. I don’t know if it was just me who found film Nick creepy (tail-gating her bicycle all the way home), but with their economic differences played up here for dramatic effect, Musical Nick comes off as even more of an a-hole, pursuing her with all the entitlement of a son of a company dynasty (don’t worry: he’ll get his redemption).
The other way to expand the story is to stuff more songs into the show. So we get those very familiar tunes – Maniac, Gloria, Manhunt, Feeling – along with a whole new score (Robbie Roth & Robert Cary). Some of these work really well, like the obligatory opening work number Steeltown Sky, or Experience, from Alex’s mentor Hannah, but unfortunately the lyrics and sentiments of many of the songs wash together. They give us the looking-out-into-the-audience-telling-you-what-I’m-going-to-do beat again and again.
The film really is the Jennifer Beals show, but to its credit the stage version finds extra heart in its expanded focus on some of the other characters, including Alex’s nightclub co-stars and best friend Gloria (Hannah K MacDonald), a combination of the film characters Jeanie and Tina Tech. Only Jimmy (Nic Casaula) gets a shorter-shift, never getting to perform his comedy-set.
The Musical debuted in 2008, had a 16-week season in the West End 2011, and this particular production, with its all-American cast, arrives in Auckland after a tour of the US. Flashdance has never made Broadway. This is no surprise. As a film, as part of the 80s zeitgeist, Flashdance has something special. As a stage musical, it is conventional to a fault. Where it succeeds, it is only because of the nostalgia-button – that was that part in the movie.
In an alternative world, where Flashdance the movie never existed, Flashdance the show would not have made it out of 2008. Billy Elliot is a good comparison (which Auckland Theatre are using to debut their new waterfront theatre later in the year). The musical, which ran on Broadway for 3 ½ years, works as its own entity (with many Americans never having seen the film). Essentially, it tells the same archetypal story as Flashdance (both climax with an against-the-odds show-stopping dancing for their life audition), but in a much smarter way.
On the other hand, we are here for the earworms and the moves. Like the film, we want to get through the dialogue to get to those moments where, as the program says, “dance, music and fashion come together”. Too bad the dancing just isn’t that flash. The ensemble choreography that sticks out like a manager on the welding floor, battling with the lyrics to see which can be the more generic. There aren’t enough bodies on stage to deliver the spectacle.
Julia Macchio as Alex however is fireball of a triple-threat, possessing more energy than the total sum of the ensemble, and director and choreographer Paul Stancato Stancato gives her dance numbers oomph. If they are holding back the company to make her look better, they shouldn’t. As her character says, she can look after herself.
Sure, a superfan* might quibble that we only saw the Maniac warmup as a projection (more or less shot-for-shot), and Feeling skips the leap and roly-poly, but when you consider the film used a number of body doubles (and slow motion!), this is understandable.
Macchio’s audition number, where Alex uses her untrained style to her advantage, is pure joy. If only the rest of the show could have achieved a similar feeling more consistently.
* Luckily I had an expert on hand, who proudly professes they have watched the film over 150 times, practicing the Maniac dance through their teens. As a child that only just squeezed into the 80s, I can claim no special attachment to the film.
Flashdance is presented by Stewart and Tricia Macpherson and Auckland Live and plays at The Civic until 1 May. Details see Auckland Live.
SEE ALSO: Theatreview.org.nz review by Penny Dodd