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Theater Review: “Flashdance—the Musical” at the Kennedy Center

An ‘80s classic gets a spirited musical adaptation with plenty of energy amid the forgettable new songs.

Corey Mach as Nick Hurley and Jillian Mueller as Alex Owens in Flashdance—The Musical. Photograph by Brian Douglas.

The Kennedy Center has needed an injection of  musical theater energy this holiday season, especially in the wake of the pallid national tour of Elf the Musical, currently playing in the Opera House. That energy blast has arrived in the form of Flashdance—the Musical, which has leapt, leg warmers and all, into the Eisenhower Theater until January 16.
Also a touring show, but with no Broadway antecedent—the producers aim to open a Flashdance in New York at some point—this show has the sparkle of one still working to stay fresh. The adaptation of the 1983 movie won’t bump any classic musicals off their pedestals, but it’s still a blast of energy and fun. And for adults who came of age in the early 1980s, that fun will come wrapped in nostalgia: The iconic image of water drenching the dance-drunk heroine, and songs such as “Maniac” and “What A Feeling,” are all here. As directed and choreographed by Sergio Trujillo, the show reproduces these moments faithfully, and re-imagines a few. 

Both on film and on stage, Flashdance is a variation on the classic tale of a working-class American striver, this time a young woman, Alex Owens, who works in a steel mill as a welder but harbors dreams of ballet school. Along the way, she falls for Nick Hurley, a scion of the family that owns the mill. In the movie, written by Joe Eszterhas and Tom Hedley, Jennifer Beals’s Alex was depicted as an 18-year-old, and the rich scion played by Michael Nouri, as a 30-ish divorcé. That “ick” factor has been purged from the stage show, co-adapted by Robert Cary and Hedley. Now Alex (played by Jillian Mueller) is young, but not specifically 18, and the handsome Nick (Corey Mach) comes across as 20-something and not divorced.  

Both on film and now on stage, the plot unfolds in bite size bits of dialogue, interspersed amid big, loud dance numbers, and onstage with anthems, too. Characters belt most of their dreams and fears out in these tunes, if you can discern the lyrics amid the über-amplification. The new songs, with music by Robbie Roth and lyrics by Roth and Cary, have driving rhythms and forgettable lyrics. They barely make a dent in the reprises of “Maniac,” “What a Feeling,” and “Manhunt,” among other tunes from the movie. They just pad the 93-minute film into a two-and-a-half-hour stage show.

What makes Flashdance—the Musical work is its dance energy. The muscular and well synchronized ensemble execute director/choreographer Trujillo’s mix of disco moves and jazzercise, plus a hint of Bob Fosse, with cocky panache. The balletic interludes, in which Alex dreams of auditioning at the prestigious local ballet school, always look classically authentic. Add to that a crackerjack set by Klara Zieglerova, comprised of quick-shifting metal monoliths that recall our industrial past, evocative projections of Pittsburgh landmarks by Peter Nigrini, and appropriately narcissistic spot-lighting for characters by Howell Binkley.

The show’s opening scene foretells the energy level to follow, as an avalanche of sparks fly from the welding gun operated by Mueller’s tough-talking Alex. Obsessed since childhood with the ballet, but afraid to display her untrained moves, she finally gets up the nerve to try out, with the help of her childhood mentor, Hannah (Jo Ann Cunningham) to give it a shot. The cute rich guy Nick tries to intercede on her behalf, which makes the independent Alex balk. And when layoffs hit the mill, a labor vs. management bump jostles their romance, too.

Mueller’s acting is convincing, but her dancing is only passable compared to the ensemble of athletic folk behind her. As rich guy/nice guy Nick, Mach is especially strong in his acting and singing—a real leading man. As Alex’s friend Gloria (now a dancer, not a skater as  in the film) and Gloria’s boyfriend Jimmy, the club’s wannabe standup comic (renamed from the film), Ginna Claire Mason and David R. Gordon make excellent foils for the leads. And Christian Whelan oozes villainy as the owner of a rival club with strippers and implied hookers.

 Let us never forget that this show follows in the jaunty footsteps of past shows that told similar tales better. Among them: The Pajama Game (1954; union shop steward falls for management guy; became a 1957 film with Doris Day); The Full Monty (2000; steel workers overcome layoffs and become male strippers, based on a 1997 film); and Billy Elliot (2005; boy from British mining town longs to do ballet, based on a 2000 film). And, of course, there’s the poignant tune from A Chorus Line (1975) about falling in love with dance “At the Ballet.”  

Flashdance—the Musical stands on all their shoulders and has fun doing it. Yet if matched with them toe-to-toe, it would come up short.

Flashdance—the Musical is at the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater through January 19. Running time: about two and a half hours including one intermission. Tickets ($45 to $150) are available via the Kennedy Center’s website.