AYER -- Director Fran Betlyon opened the last production of the Ayer Shirley Regional High School musical "Footloose" with a stark announcement.
"Tomorrow, it's balls to the walls," she said of the 900-seat high school auditorium. "Tomorrow everything is going to be torn apart, and so next year we will have a fabulous new auditorium."
The theater, built in the early 1960s, is now in the process of being replaced with a more modern, state-of-the-art facility as part of the school's major building renovation, due to be completed in the fall of 2015.
With music direction by Matt Burwell, the high school's music teacher and choral and band director, a cast of talented students from across all grade levels mixed it up on Sunday for a lively, fun afternoon of music and romance.
In the lead were seniors Jose Rosales as Ren, and Sophia Grallert as Ariel, the star-crossed couple who get off to a rocky start.
The musical opened with a group of young people gathered at their favorite dance club in Chicago, where they are saying good-bye to Ren McCormack. Ren's father has walked out, so he and his mother Ethel, played by fellow senior Stevie Schaeffer, are forced to move in with her sister's family in a small southern town nobody has ever heard of -- Bomont.
The high-energy opening, with the familiar song "Footloose" impeccably performed by an accomplished pit orchestra, smoothly transitioned into a church scene where Ren and his mother sit amidst the parishioners of a ministry lorded over by the uncompromising Reverend Moore.
Moore, played by senior Jason Mills, preaches against the perils of loose morals as the laity begins asking themselves the question, "Have I done the right thing?" Later, Moore's fiercely independent daughter Ariel and her jealous boyfriend Chuck, played with growing perfection by freshman Ryan Messcher, hang out with friends Travis and Lyle, played by freshman Jacob Miska and sophomore Ryleigh Levensailor.
When Ren eventually walks Ariel home, they find they have a lot in common.
When Principal Harry Clark, sternly portrayed by senior Ralph Go, explains to Ren that dancing is not permitted within the town of Bomont, Ren's new friends explain to him that five years earlier, a car accident claimed the lives of four Bomont teenagers returning home from a dance.
The three girls, Rusty, played by senior Suzanne Reyes, Urleen, played by freshman Jill Folger, and Wendy Jo, portrayed by sophomore Kristen Bremer, tell Ren that no matter what he does, "Somebody's Eyes" are watching him in the small town.
Some of the standout singers in "Footloose" were Grallert, sophomore Mackenzie Young as Reverend Moore's wife Vi, Schaeffer, and Reyes, who, as Rusty, is fast-talking but with a powerful singing voice, perfect for "Let's Hear It for the Boy" in the second act.
One of the surprises of the show was the shy boy of few words, Willard Hewitt, played by freshman Noah Watson. A bumbler who would rather sit on a fence than dance with the smitten Rusty at an out-of-town dance hall, Willard is transformed into a two-steppin' wonder by a crowd eager to teach him to dance.
Later, when Ren determines that he is going to approach the town council with a speech to convince the town to repeal its prohibition on dancing, Willard shines as he sings his anthem, "Mama Says."
Although the storyline of the musical is generally energetic and upbeat, the overall message is one of loss, grieving and recovery. Each of the two main families has lost a loved one. Ren's father has run off, and, as it turns out, one of the four teens killed years ago was Ariel's brother.
In the inevitable conclusion, after Ren has finally convinced Reverend Moore not to let the past burden his town's future, the entire cast cut loose in the final number, "Footloose" reprised.
From the sparse but effective sets, to the lighting, choreography, music, costumes, staging, and acting, this final curtain call of the Ayer Shirley Regional High School auditorium ended on a high note.