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Sometimes I’m asked, How do you know if someone’s really good? Well, if you’ve been in the business a long time–whether as a reviewer, a writer, or a director (and I’ve worked as all three)–and your instincts are good, you just know. You know talent when you see it, immediately.

A few examples, to explain what I mean. The first time I saw Celia Keenan-Bolger–who was then fresh out of college, playing a small supporting role in “Summer of ‘42" at Connecticut’s famed Goodspeed Opera House–she just sort of jumped out at me. She was an unknown, but she was the real deal. This was long before she appeared on Broadway in such shows as “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” (for which she won a Drama Desk Award and a Theatre World Award), “Les Miz,” and “Peter and the Starcatcher” (in which she currently co-stars). I was glad to have her sing in a festival I produced; her potential was obvious.

Jesse Tyler Ferguson

The first time I saw Jesse Tyler Ferguson was when The New York Post assigned me to review George C. Wolfe’s production of “On the Town” in Central Park (before the show transferred to Broadway). He’d never before had a starring role anywhere (not even in high school), and this was his professional debut in New York, but I noted at once that he was the standout, and wrote at year’s end in the Post that he’d given the year’s most significant debut performance. And I wrote him that I was certain that in time, I’d be watching him regularly on TV–which of course is what’s happened. (He’s now on the hit sitcom “Modern Family.”)

I knew Santino Fontana had the stuff to make it when I first met him, back when he was just 17, out in Idaho (where I was giving a clinic) in February of 2000; since moving to NYC from out west, this Drama Desk Award-winning actor has never stopped working (“The Fantasticks,” “View from the Bridge,” “Brighton Beach Memoirs,” “Sunday in the Park with George,” “Billy Elliot,” “Sons of the Prophet”)–and he had it at 17, as I noted then. I gave some of the earliest exposure in print to Harry Connick Jr., Norah Jones and others, when they were working in tiny clubs, before they’d released albums. I could give many other examples. If someone’s got the goods, it’s obvious.

I enjoyed seeing “Footloose” the other night at the Thomaston, Connecticut, Opera House. A fun show–light summer entertainment–well-directed/choreographed by Foster Evans Reese, with music direction by AJ Bunel. Lots of fine performances, and a good overall feel from a big, spirited cast. But one performer was the clear standout–he had the stage presence, the comic timing, the singing voice, the moves–to go places in this business. That’s Jack Saleeby, in the supporting role of “Willard,” which was played memorably by Tom Plotkin in the original Broadway production.

Footloose - poster Thomaston Opera House

I saw Plotkin play the role repeatedly on Broadway, and thought he was excellent. (Plotkin was new to Broadway then, but I’d already been an admirer of his work from the Off-Broadway revue “Forbidden Broadway.”) When he left “Footloose,” he was succeeded by a young, then-unknown Christian Borle (who’s currently one of the stars of the Broadway hit “Peter and the Starcatcher” and NBC-TV’s “Smash,” and is a great favorite of mine). I never thought I’d see this role handled better than those two had handled it.

But Saleeby, up in Thomaston, Connecticut, actually is making more of the part than either Plotkin or Borle did. Which is saying plenty. He’s skinnier, slighter, scrawnier than they ever were, which made his lines about always wanting to fight seem funnier. And his gawkniness made it highly believable when he kept saying he couldn’t dance, he couldn’t dance; he was too shy to dance. But then director/choreographer Reese did something very wise. He had “Willard” (Saleeby) surprise us by bursting out of his shell and dancing inventively with tremendous aplomb. That dance routine was a beautifully choreographed, beautifully executed, and totally unexpected addition to the show–a peak moment. And it got the biggest hand, the night I attended. If my schedule permitted–and, alas, it does not–I’d enjoy seeing the show again, if just to see that dance routine. Neither Plotkin nor Borle could ever dance like that!

Jeremy Kushnier, who played the starring role of Ren McCormack in the original Broadway production, was a very good dancer, and choreographer AC Ciulla showcased him well on “I Can’t Stand Still.” (Rob Giardin, who plays Ren in the Thomaston production, is very likeable in the role, and generally does it justice; but he is not a dancer.) By far the best dancer in the original Broadway production of “Footloose,” incidentally, was a 19-year-old member of the ensemble who’d won assorted dancing awards (but was not an actor), Mark Myars; and Ciulla put him in the spotlight wherever he could; I can close my eyes and still see his graceful turns-and-seconds putting a button on the opening scene of Act Two. A wise director/choreographer makes the most of the assets he has available to him, and Reese was wise to showcase Saleeby as he did–just as Ciulla was wise to showcase (in different parts of the play) Myars when he could. Saleeby’s dance break was really rewarding to watch. Real theater.

In the Thomaston production of “Footloose,” Nina Paganucci is very good–vivid and present, and strong (and good-looking, to boot)--as Ariel, the preacher’s daughter who fall for Ren McCormack. A musical-theater student from the University of Hartford, she’s someone I’ll look forward to seeing again. Catherine Thoben Quirk was excellent as the preacher’s long-suffering wife–giving a warm, nicely shaded performance; Tony Sposato was fine as the earnest but misguided preacher. Ruben Soto was right on the money as the town’s bad boy. Joey Antonios (whom I last saw starring in “West Side Story,” at Thomaston a few years ago) had moments to shine as a singing cowboy; I’m always happy to hear his voice. And Reese gathered appropriately youthful performers (including Ashley Dambowsky, Tina Johnson, Victoria Beaudoin, Samantha Putko, Gloria Antonios, Curtis Dunn, Justin Begin, Noel Roberge, Jennifer Bunger, Liz Laskazewski, Christine Manalo, Jean-Marie McGrath) to play the teens in town–a nice change of pace from the 30-ish actors pretending to be teenagers whom I’d seen in a recent Westchester production of “Bye Bye Birdie.” Or in the last Broadway revival of “Grease.” (I had friends in both of those casts–but they were still too old to play teens.) A show about youth–like this one–should be cast largely with youths. Reese got his mostly young cast to carry off well some nice ensemble dance numbers, and project a good overall spirit.

Footloose - Left to Right Tori Beaudoin Samantha Putko Nina Paganucci and Tina Johnson cast-members of the Thomaston Opera House production of Footloose.

L to R: Tori Beaudoin, Samantha Putko, Ninas Paganucci & Tina Johnson

I have to give a special acknowledgment to Patricia Paganucci, who stepped into the show just before opened, as a last-minute replacement for one cast-member. I know how scary it can be for an actor to take over a role on just a day or two’s notice. But she acquitted herself well. That takes courage. I’ve seen a number of cases of actors having to cover roles with little preparation; that’s simply a part of life in the theater. The most dramatic case I ever witnessed was during a press preview for the Broadway production of “On the Waterfront.” They hadn’t yet gotten around to rehearsing the understudies; they were going to do that after the show opened. And during the first act--about 15 minutes prior to the conclusion of the act--one of the actors on stage suffered a heart attack. (I remember rushing to the telephone in the men’s room, to phone in the news to my editor at the Post–this was before there were cell phones–and the woman from Newsday, fearing I might scoop her, barged into the men’s room, and grabbed the phone from me, to try to call the news into her own paper.) The first act of the play was never finished. A doctor in the house worked on the actor who’d suffered the heart attack, until an ambulance arrived to take him to the hospital. After a long intermission, Act Two was started with a nervous understudy taking over for the actor who’d collapsed. And the play went on. (The production got terrible reviews and closed quickly; but that had nothing to do with the actor having a heart-attack, or the understudy who had to step in, without having properly rehearsed.)

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Footloose,” as I suspect most readers of this column may know, tells the story of a teenager, Ren McCormack, who moves to a town out west where dancing is against the law. He helps organize other kids to protest this. They eventually win, and get the right to dance. (The story was inspired by events in the town of Elmore, Oklahoma, where dancing long was banned.)

I was happy to see this show again–and particularly happy to see it at the Thomaston Opera House. This 19th century theater has a rich history; over the years, some highly renowned artists have graced its stage, including Enrico Caruso, Madame Galli-Curci. Ray Bolger, Conrad Janis, and Marian Anderson. And over the years, I’ve enjoyed lots of shows there, including “Mame,” “Les Miserables,” “Seussical,” “Joseph...,” “West Side Story.” When one of my scripts, “The Family that Sings Together,” was published in 2009, I actually wrote in my preface a note of thanks to performers I’d seen over the years at the Thomaston Opera House for the inspiration they’d given me; part of that play of mine was actually set in the “Thomaston Opera House,” and the Opera House is also referenced in two other scripts of mine. So this grand old theater has a special place in my affections. In 2010, after mounting financial losses, the theater ceased operations. Many of us thought that the theater was gone for good. But a citizens’ group, led by local residents Jeffrey Dunn and Chuck Stango, waged a successful campaign to bring “live” theater back to the Thomaston Opera House. It took them two years, but they won their battle. And the theater re-opened this year, with their group (incorporated as “Landmark Community Theater”) quickly putting together a full schedule of big musicals. It made me happy to see the Opera House filled with hundreds of supportive patrons, the night I caught “Footloose” (which runs through July 29th). They’re already in rehearsals for their next show, Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “The King and I,” which will be followed by Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas.”

Over the years, I’ve seen similar campaigns succeed in saving other endangered theaters, from the Goodspeed Opera House of East Haddam, Connecticut, to the Warner Theater of Torrington, Connecticut; to the Palace Theater of Waterbury, Connecticut; to the Bucks County Playhouse of New Hope, Pennsylvania. I’m supportive of the current campaign to save and restore the Landsdowne Theater of Pennsylvania. I like seeing these historic theaters saved, and put to good use again. Everyone benefits, from actors to audience members, to local businesses (like restaurants, taverns, gas stations) that theater-goers might patronize on a night out. A viable theater adds life to a region in many ways. So I was happy to be seeing this show–and to be seeing a theater built in the 1880's being put to good use.

Seeing “Footloose” again--after all these years since it originally opened on Broadway in 1998-- brought back a flood of memories for me. I’d like to share a few now....

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In all the years that I wrote for The New York Post, there was only one time that senior-theater-critic Clive Barnes and I seriously disagreed about the merits and prospects of a show. And that was when the Broadway production of “Footloose” opened. He thought the show was dreck, was confident most critics would feel the same; he was sure it was one of those shows that–having received a thorough drubbing from most critics–would quickly disappear and be forgotten. That was what usually happened to shows that most critics dismissed–they came and went overnight.

I tried (without much success) to convince him that the show--although far from a classic--was fun, and had more going for it in terms of music, dancing, and story than most critics seemed willing to acknowledge. I told him I was sure it would find an audience, despite the pans of most critics, and I gave him specific reasons. I felt the story would have resonance for more people than he suspected. I insisted I’d be seeing regional productions of the show for years to come.... He was skeptical. When it came to “Footloose,” we finally just agreed to disagree.

Clive Barnes

I thought the world of Clive Barnes, as both a person and as a conscientious reviewer of theater and dance. I valued him as a wise, kindly friend and mentor, and was honored to share pages with him in The Post. (Over the years, he taught me a lot; whether I was writing about theater or music, I learned from him. He was a tough critic, but personally very generous with me.) We had similar tastes; and almost always were in agreement as to which shows (or cabaret artists) were good or bad, and why.

He wrote it off as one of those inexplicable quirks of life that I found anything of merit in “Footloose,” or imagined that such a show could find a following. (He seemed baffled that I could find anything to enjoy there.) He was surprised–as I suspect many critics were–that, despite garnering largely negative reviews, “Footloose” drew

enthusiastic audiences for two seasons on Broadway, and went on to have a life in regional and school productions. The show refused to die! To him, it seemed to be simply a show about teens dancing--of not much more interest or lasting value than, say, Dick Clark’s “American Bandstand” television program.

But I think the show won followers–and continues to work–because the story touches something in us. There are elements with enduring appeal. It’s a show about people fighting city hall, and such shows have always had appeal in America. We root for the underdog, especially if he’s idealistic. And in this show, it’s not just “people” fighting city hall, but young people. Young people questioning authority and learning that the authority figures in their life–in this case, the preacher, the mayor, the high-school principal, aunts and uncles and neighbors–don’t necessarily know what’s best. It’s about teens fighting for autonomy. And that’s an important part of life. And the show captures that–as well as capturing, of course, the high spirits of youth. Kids do want to dance, and when they finally do dance, at the end, we share in their exuberant release.

The show is not perfect. The libretto (by Dean Pitchford and Walter Bobbie, adapted from Pitchford’s screenplay) meanders at times. It’s more interesting when it stays focused on the kids than when it tries to give time to the adults; we know it’s really the kids’ story, and the thoughts of the preacher and his wife are of lesser importance. But over the course of the night, the main characters all learn and grow, which is dramatically satisfying. The songs (by Dean Pitchford, Tom Snow, Kenny Loggins and others) are uneven, with the upbeat numbers generally much stronger and more successful than the ballads. But what wonderfully catchy, infectious upbeat numbers the score includes! Numbers like “Holding Out for a Hero,” “The Girl Gets Around,” “Let’s Hear it for the Boy,” and “Footloose” are rousing. And make you want to dance. Who can resist them?

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I watched this show’s development from start to finish. The New York Post sent me to Washington, DC, to see the show’s first preview, in tryouts, back in 1998, and I followed the progress of the show, went to the cast-album recording session, and so on. I felt the tension of cast-members as one key actor, playing the preacher, was abruptly replaced by his more sympathetic understudy during previews. I admired the plucky spirit of the mostly young cast–many had never before been in a Broadway show–as dance routines kept getting changed, lengthened and shortened in exhausting rehearsals, until just the right balance was found.

Jeremy Kushnier

  I admired most of all Jeremy Kushnier–who’d never before done a show in New York. He was a very likeable, open-hearted youth from Canada who’d traveled by bus for 13 hours to audition for “Footloose,” never expecting to get cast. He had just enough money to get to the audition in New York City and return that same day to home. He got off the bus, washed up in a restroom of the Marriott Marquis Hotel, and went to the audition. When the director asked him to come back for a callback the next day, he didn’t even have money for a hotel room that night. He persuaded a stranger he’d met at the audition to let him crash for the night. And the next day, he was told he had the role. I admired his moxie in taking that long bus ride to audition. And finding a way to fulfill his dreams. And I admired director Walter Bobbie for taking a chance on a total unknown–who wound up impressing a lot of people. (When he performed in the first workshop of “Footloose,” casting agent Bernard Telsey, who handled “Rent,” told Kushnier, “You’re great; how come you’ve never auditioned for ‘Rent’?” Kushnier responded, “I have; you turned me down.” Telsey assured him he’d put him in “Rent” when he could.)

Kushnier was terrific in “Footlloose.” I’ve enjoyed him in other shows since then, from “Rent” (where he played Roger) to the recent Broadway revival of “Jesus Christ Superstar” (where he had a small role but understudied all three male leads ,and got to go on in all of those roles). I’m happy for his success, over the years. Many times when I’ve given lectures on theater, in the US and abroad, I’ve cited him as an example; he not only had the talent needed to succeed, he also had the guts. Most people would not have taken that long bus ride. But had he not gotten on that bus, he’d never have wound up starring, as a young man, on Broadway.

And that’s another part of the equation. When an aspiring actor asks me, “Do you think I have what it takes to make it?,” I’ll often respond, “I can tell if you’ve got talent; but you know in your heart if you’ve got the guts. And you’re going to need that. If you don’t have that within you, you’re going to have to develop that. Because you need that as much as talent.”

When I first met Santino Fontana, out in Idaho, when he was just 17, every instinct told me immediately that he had the potential to make it in this business–as indeed he has–and we stayed in touch by mail. But if he hadn’t had the guts to leave his small town and try New York, nothing would have happened. It takes a certain kind of courage, and stick-to-it-iveness, that not everyone has.

I remember the late Natasha Richardson telling me (in a 1999 interview) that she’d seen many actors sabotage their own careers–finding excuses not to work–because they were scared. An actress we knew was then claiming to have turned down an offer to be in “Footloose” on Broadway because she didn’t get along with a key person in the production. Richardson laughed at the notion, saying: “Who says you have to love the people you work with? Some actors are just looking for excuses not to work, not to succeed. My ex-husband is producing my current play [‘Closer’]. We’ve divorced. But we’re professionals; he knows I’m a good actor; I know he’s a good producer. If you want to work, you work. I’m grateful for every opportunity; I take each job thinking that this could be my last opportunity to work.” I liked her attitude. And remembered her wise words when she died as a result of a skiing accident, some years later.

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The producers of the Broadway production of “Footloose” quoted me in ads–and also on an eight-foot-long wooden sign that hung under the marquee of the Richard Rodgers Theater–throughout the run of the play. And when the play finally closed on Broadway in the summer of 2000, they gave me that eight-foot-long wooden sign (known in an the trade as an “undersling”); it hangs in my home today. In the ads and on that sign, they used the following quote: “The dancing is heart-stoppingly extraordinarily fantastic”–Chip Deffaa, New York Post.

Footloose - Chip Deffaa outside theatre

Chip Deffaa outside Richard Rodgers Theatre beneath his "Footloose"  quote from the NY Post

They actually combined words from three different sentences of mine to create that composite quote; but I liked the show so much, I didn’t mind that they’d fudged a bit in “quoting” me. The sentiments reflected my feelings--even if I’d never bunch adjectives like that (“heartstoppingly, extraordinarily”) in a single sentence. A couple of other times, though, producers of shows went too far in altering my words–making it sound like I’d praised a show that I’d actually panned--and my editors objected and got them to kill the misleading ads. A classic case was when I panned one unappealing off-Broadway show, “Behind the Beat,” saying it had little to recommend for it, except the star’s hard-working backup singers who were “first-rate.” The producers ran an ad in the Times, quoting me, under the show’s title, as saying simply “First rate!”–as if I’d written those words of praise about the show, not the lowly backup singers. That was really misleading. Clive Barnes told me: “If a show’s no good, never give them ANYTHING they can use.” I thought it amusing that they’d so brazenly misrepresented what I’d written, and hung that ad in my home, too–simply because it was so silly.

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I’ve got road-trips planned, to take friends to see the new offerings at the Bucks County Playhouse in Pennsylvania, and at the Goodspeed Opera House in Connecticut. Sometimes friends will ask me why I’m always traveling to see shows in distant locales. (I once flew to Austin, Texas, just to see Carol Channing’s final performance in “Hello Dolly!,” which I’d seen numerous time before in New York and Washington, DC.) Surely, friends will suggest, there’s enough to see in New York City.

But I like seeing all kinds of theater, in all kinds of places. And you never know where you’ll see something good. I’m often surprised. The production of “Hairspray” I caught this year at the Warner Theater in Torrington, Connecticut, was better directed, choreographed and executed than the non-Equity national touring production I caught in New Brunswick, NJ. The passionate student production of “Rent” I caught this year at Hofstra University was much better–and truer to the spirit of the show’s late creator, Jonathan Larson–than the lifeless professional Equity production of “Rent” that I saw at Westchester Broadway Theater. (I took my friend Victoria Leacock Hoffman–who’d been Jonathan Larson’s girlfriend and original producer–to see that Westchester Broadway production, and afterwards she patiently, lovingly spent an hour with the cast trying to teach them how to do the show better; it was like a free master class. I hope they listened carefully; that was as close to getting guidance directly from Jonathan Larson as they could ever hope to experience.) Yes, theater production standards are generally much higher in New York than elsewhere. But rewarding moments of theater can be found anywhere.

I’ll long remember that Jack Saleeby-dance sequence that director/choreographer Foster Evans Reese has put on the stage of the Thomaston Opera House in “Footloose.” I give credit to both Reese and Saleeby. A director recognizing what a performer can do, and bringing out the best in him. Utterly satisfying. And more rarely achieved in the theater than one might expect.

I like the current Broadway production of “Nice Work if You Can Get It.” It’s a good show that I’d recommend to anyone. But it is not, alas, the truly great show–the “must-see” kind of show–that it could have been, and should have been. Director Kathleen Marshall--whose staging is sometimes too cluttered--doesn’t always have the wisdom, or trust in simplicity when it’s needed, to showcase her stars to best advantage. She doesn’t give Matthew Broderick–whom I adore as a performer–a chance to shine without distraction, the way Reese is giving Saleeby a chance to shine in “Footloose.” Broderick is a major musical-theater star. But Marshall never gives him an eleven o’clock number. She never really lets him do what he does best for very long.

Matthew Broderick

 He’ll start singing a number, sweetly, wonderfully, with ukelele accompaniment–and it is pure and simple, and utterly winning; Broderick has as much natural charm as anyone I’ve ever met. But then she’ll bring in background singers for comic effect, and have the orchestra come in, busily, and turn a solo number that was working perfectly into a production number that doesn’t quite pay off. As if she hasn’t enough trust in the material, and in Broderick’s ability to put it over, to leave well enough alone. And she’s smothering the great star she has. Which for me, watching the show, gets a bit frustrating.

Don’t get me wrong. For the most part, I like “Nice Work if You Can Get It.” I look forward to seeing it again. Broderick’s comic timing is impeccable, the Gershwin score is a treat; and the production is very well-cast. But that good show--with better direction to let its stars be seen at their best–could and should have been great.

Well, that’s it for today’s column. If you have any questions or comments, feel free to Email me at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.">This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or add me on Facebook and talk to me there.

CHIP DEFFAA, July 19, 2012

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