Back in the days when records were the music delivery system of choice, every 45 rpm disc had a b-side. There, taking up space, was a song nobody expected to be a hit. It filled up space and, one hoped, brought some pleasure to those who somehow stumbled onto it with low expectations.
“Flashdance: The Musical” (at Clowes Hall through Oct. 6), is the theatrical equivalent of the b-side. Anyone buying a ticket expecting a great evening of musical theater has been sitting in bright lights and being doused with water for too long. Go in with minimal expectations, though, and there are pleasures to be had.
The source material for “Flashdance” comes from a musical-ish movie. That is, a movie where the music soundtrack played a key role (perhaps the key role) but whose characters never actually sang any songs. Think "Footloose" and "Dirty Dancing." They capture the fancy of theater producers who figure there's a market for stage versions. With rare exceptions, though, the main characters in stage musicals actually belt out notes, so the stories have to be adapted so that the existing hit songs canbe sung. And since the running time of most albums is shorter than the needs of a stage musical, original songs have to be added.
In "Flashdance," the new tunes don’t represent much of a qualitative drop-off from the show’s ‘80s hits (“Maniac,” “Gloria,” “What a Feeling,” etc.). The scenic design—set pieces combined with projections and dramatic lighting—effectively keep the action moving. The writers saddled with the adaptation assignment wisely opted for sincerity over kitsch. And the dancing is energetic if not inspired.
My memory of the screen “Flashdance” is mercifully muddied by 30 years of not seeing it. So I didn’t arrive at Clowes with any need for scene-by-scene comparison. But even I could see that the show's most awkward moments were the ones where it tried to recreate iconic moments from the movie. On it's own, most of it is b-side time filler (which still puts it head-and-bare-shoulder above "Happy Days: The Musical").
Through it all, Jillian Mueller proves a game leading lady, triple-threating her way through a brutally demanding part, physically and vocally. Even in a formula show crafted by marketers rather than theater artists—a show that sometimes feels like “Billy Elliot” with a lobotomy—she’s an actress/singer/dancer to root for.