At Kennedy Center, ‘Flashdance’ is an unimaginative repurposing of the movie


Jillian Mueller as Alex Owens in Flashdance The Musical at the Kennedy Center. (Jeremy Daniel)

MTV lifted off in 1981, and two years later “Flashdance” became a huge movie hit by slicking up the fresh, new music-video style. The stage musical of “Flashdance” now at the Kennedy Center (and praying for a Broadway date) comes out of the gate looking ready to play along: Early MTV icons such as Madonna and Devo are projected on a screen, and almost immediately the show brashly updates some of the movie’s hot-shot street-dancing scenes.

Holy videocassette: Could a stage musical of “Flashdance” actually work?

Maybe, but probably only if it kept blissing out and dancing. As it is, the project — first seen in London in 2010 and now in the middle of a long national tour, with Broadway openings announced and postponed — groans under the weight of cardboard characters spouting cliches and singing sluggish platitudes.

The 95-minute movie was silly but taciturn and undeniably stylish. The 21 / 2-hour theater version wears its heart on its sleeve and belts its dreams to a techno beat.

The show is directed and choreographed by “Memphis” and “Jersey Boys” choreographer Sergio Trujillo, and it doesn’t lack energy or visual polish. The streets of Pittsburgh are captured by Peter Nigrini’s projections, and Klara Zieglerova’s set features tall sliding panels that easily sweep us through the required locales: the steel mill, a bar for exotic dancers and a seedier joint for strippers, the refined ballet school where Alex hopes to enroll, and more.

The production also boasts a singing-dancing dynamo in Jillian Mueller as Alex, the daytime welder and nighttime dancer. Jennifer Beals was pensive and charismatic in the movie, but she had a dance double and she didn’t have to sing. Mueller, on the other hand, belts big new numbers (she has a lively pop voice) and flings herself into dance routines with all the abandon you’d expect of a character identified in one of the movie’s famous montages as a “Maniac.” That song is reprised here, sung by other club dancers as Mueller works out and then hits the stage for one of Alex’s not-quite-stripper routines.

Sporting unlaced boots and a leather jacket, Mueller’s Alex is fetching and tough. But in a harbinger of how stumped this musical is for innovative ways to develop the film’s outlines, the chip on Alex’s shoulder grows absurd as she becomes the Fonz of working-class Pittsburgh, coolly banging a soda machine as a Coke tumbles out. (Heyyyy.)

But then who did the writers think Alex would become as they “deepened” her and gave her (and too many other characters) a back story? Looking back, the fingerprints on the movie belong to fantasists and fetishists. Director Adrian Lyne would quickly go on to “91 / 2 Weeks” and “Fatal Attraction,” while co-screenwriter Joe Eszterhas would be defined by “Basic Instinct” and “Showgirls.” They were masters of the sleazy, high-gloss good time.

Here, writers Tom Hedley — credited with the story of the movie — and Robert Cary try to rise above that, sort of. The musical does away with the strip-club toplessness, of course, and in both clubs, the dancers are still scantily clad. But the over-padded narrative includes, among other things, a plot about layoffs at the steel mill. Does the rich young heir — Alex’s boss and love interest — have the heart to stand up for the workers? Do the exotic dancers have the courage not to totally degrade themselves by stripping? Can the very able songwriters Cary (lyrics) and Robbie Roth (music and lyrics) keep pumping out noble ballads and anthems about “Justice,” “My Next Step,” “My Turn” and “Where I Belong”?

Speaking or singing, the things that come out of the characters’ mouths are just that generic all night long. So, yes, you get the movie hits “Maniac” and “What a Feeling” in the obvious places, and “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll” and a “Manhunt” delivered by an exotic dancer named Kiki in a high-cut leotard and a fierce Grace Jones hairdo. (Trujillo’s choreography is fairly interesting when it’s on the street or near the ballet studio, but, of course, “Flashdance” keeps getting sucked back to the stripper poles.) Roth’s music fits the 1980s styles just fine, but the story is all schmaltz, and Alex’s climactic number is the corniest bit of all.

One of the show’s producers has said the “Flashdance” brand means the show doesn’t need to be “blessed” by critics. Does that mean it’s okay to gull audiences by dully repurposing marketable titles? The movie was its own kind of art; the stage version is not. It’s a bad knockoff, the kind of inarticulate, pushy, commercially pretested blather that makes musicals look dumb.

Flashdance

Book by Tom Hedley and Robert Cary, music by Robbie Roth, lyrics by Cary and Roth. Directed and choreographed by Sergio Trujillo. Lights, Howell Binkley; costumes, Paul Tazewell; sound design, John Shivers and David Patridge. With Corey Mach, Alison Ewing, Ginna Claire Mason, DeQuina Moore, Jo Ann Cunningham, David R. Gordon, Matthew Henerson, Christian Whelan, Erika Amato, Mackenzie Bell, Carleigh Bettiol, Derek Carley, Ryan Carlson, Lynorris Evans, Haley Hannah, Charlene Hoffman, Jarvis McKinley, Doreen Montalvo, Austin Owen, Katelyn Prominski, Angelo Soriano, Dani Spieler, Lawrence E. Street, Kamille Upshaw, Blake Zelesnikar. About 2 1 / 2 hours. Through Jan. 19 at the Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater. Tickets $45-$150. Call 202-467-4600 or visit www.kennedy-center.org.

First Post byline, 1992; covering theater for the Post since 1999. His book "American Playwriting and the Anti-Political Prejudice" will be published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2014.
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