Before you mock the very notion of "Flashdance — The Musical," ponder the worldwide gross of the 1983 cinematic story of the Pittsburgh welder with big dreams and a love of oversized sweatshirts: $150 million or so. It's also worth noting that the story of sexy Alex Owens, who wields blowtorches by day and gyrates by night in her underwear to the Academy Award-winning song stylings of Irene Cara, et al, fits more easily than most movies into the stage-musical format. And if you're really a die-hard fan, you might even argue that "Flashdance" (the movie), forged when music videos were in their dubious prime, was formatively influential on other 1980s blockbusters like "Top Gun," with their power-ballad fantasy sequences. Give thanks for "Flashdance." Otherwise we might all have been deprived our "Take My Breath Away."
The other thing that might convince you that "Flashdance — The Musical" is really not a bad idea (stay with me here) is the collective gurgle of delighted recognition that emerged Tuesday night from the audience at the first electronic strains of "Flashdance ... What A Feeling" (a song with lyrics, by the way, that never contains the actual word "Flashdance") came over the speakers. It came at the top of what turned out to be quite the long night of working-class angst. At that point, I had to restrain myself from heading directly to the soundboard and twiddling a few knobs in the direction marked "up." There are many things that need to be fixed with "Flashdance" before the show makes its planned Broadway debut but, especially since the hearing of those of us in the target demographic is not what it once was, a good first step would be to amp up the volume. Who the heck ever played "Gloria" or "Maniac" with the stereo at 50 percent?
After that tweak, the creative team might also focus on the universal truth that women buy more theater tickets than men.
Sure, sexy Alex, played here by a very sexy and talented young dancer (and a pretty singer, albeit not with a huge voice) named Jillian Mueller, is supposed to offer some seductive appeal for the red-blooded male. But the overall look and gestalt of this show is far too tipped in that direction. Since Alex dances in a club, and the plot involves the lure of an even sleazier joint, the temptations were no doubt there. But "Flashdance — The Musical" currently looks a bit too much like a night at the Admiral Theatre (or how I would imagine such a night to be), which I suspect will turn many women off.
The talented director-choreographer Sergio Trujillo ("Jersey Boys") is perfectly capable of providing some eroticized males in motion and, heck, he's got steelworkers to play with here. But although Matthew Hydzik, in the male romantic lead of Nick Hurley, is a fine singer, he's milquetoast in the department of sexuality and he really ought to dance. The ladies in the audience want a touch of the full monty, or something close. Anything with the title of "Flashdance — The Musical" is unlikely ever to be a critic's favorite, so it might at least deliver more sensual thrills to the bulk of the paying customers who will be dragging along their boyfriends and spouses.
To be fair, this is very much a serious endeavor (as distinct from "Dirty Dancing," which merely put the movie on the stage, even duplicating its visuals). The composer Robbie Roth has penned around 16 original, serviceable songs (lyrics are co-written with Robert Cary). That's about a half-dozen too many, given those songs are not anywhere close to the quality of the original five songs in the movie. (For all you trivia buffs, the two not yet mentioned here are "Manhunt" and "I Love Rock and Roll.") The original screenwriter Tom Hedley (with Cary) has written the book, which isn't bad and even quite witty in spots, but currently is far too much of a screenplay, trapping the show in a succession of the kind of short, small-group scenes that movies need to tell their story but that have torpedoed many a screen-to-stage transfer in the past.
Especially in the second act, when the main plot (will she get into dance school and make it work with her cute boss?) and the comic B plot (will the couple accept their mutual mediocrity and stay in Pittsburgh?) need to wrap up, we're stuck in a dizzying sequence of short scenes that really don't matter. It's not like the main questions are ever in doubt. The set, designed with a mix of genuine invention and visual chaos by Klara Zieglerova (the Paul Tazewell costumes are terrific) never opens up enough to give what has to fundamentally be a dance show the requisite room to breathe. That needs to be fixed.
There are some decent performers in the character roles, especially Jo Ann Cunningham as Alex's dance mentor Hannah and the truly terrific Kelly Felthous as struggling pal Gloria (Felthous has the best voice on the stage). Many are underused.
It's time for Hedley to consolidate many of these superfluous scenes. The movie "Flashdance" really did have a lot in common with early MTV videos; there's no reason not to embrace that on the stage, instead of spending so much time on secondary matters of plot. We've all seen this story before in "Billy Elliot" or "The Full Monty." This show will only succeed if it delivers the same kind of sensual rush of the original film, and on a stage, with this story, that best can be delivered with raw dance to a rock-out soundtrack, all staged in front of a credibly gritty portrait of 1980s Pittsburgh. That's the sweet spot, folks.
By far the best moment of the night is Mueller's spectacular conclusion dance solo, when Trujillo and this passionate young performer really deliver — with a deft blend of 1980s dance styles and fresh interpretation. It's a tough assignment, given that three different women split up this character in the movie that was filled with dubs and body doubles. A stage version presents the tricky problem of what to do with the lyrics on stage. Trujillo sticks his vocalists in little boxes, which is one way to go, although I'd rather have just watched the star dance in a more openly theatrical world of dreams and longing, against the backdrop of a true working-class triumph.
This is what this show needs to be, this is what the fans paid to see and relive from their youth. Why make them wait so long for such a feeling?
When: Through Aug. 18
Where: Cadillac Palace Theatre, 151 W. Randolph St.
Running time: 2 hours, 35 minutes
Tickets: $18-85 at 800-775-2000 or broadwayinchicago.com