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updated: 8/7/2013 5:14 PM

'Flashdance' musical better than film, but still silly

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  • Alex Owens (Jillian Mueller) tells Nick Hurley (Matthew Hydzik) of her dreams to become a professional dancer in "Flashdance -- The Musical," now playing at the Cadillac Palace Theatre in Chicago through Sunday, Aug. 18.

      Alex Owens (Jillian Mueller) tells Nick Hurley (Matthew Hydzik) of her dreams to become a professional dancer in "Flashdance -- The Musical," now playing at the Cadillac Palace Theatre in Chicago through Sunday, Aug. 18.
    Courtesy of Jeremy Daniel

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"Flashdance -- The Musical," now playing at the Chicago's Cadillac Palace Theatre, is a show with an identity problem.

Often, this screen-to-stage adaptation of the 1983 film feels like it should be a mocking jukebox musical a la "Rock of Ages." That's because the show is stocked with ubiquitous 1980s pop hits that were all featured in the film: "Maniac," "Manhunt," "I Love Rock and Roll," "Gloria" and "Flashdance ... What a Feeling."

And then there's the rest of the original 1980s-style song score by Robbie Roth and Robert Cary that carries the burden of actually advancing the film's flimsy premise and plot. Roth and Cary write catchy numbers that are skillfully orchestrated by Doug Besterman to sound like songs that could have been sung by the likes of The Pointer Sisters or Rick Springfield, but the lack of decades of airplay inevitably makes the new score sound inferior to the established pop hits.

So it's hard for "Flashdance" to fully succeed, since it has to appease nostalgic legwarmer-wearing fans of the original who want the song hits they know and the film's iconic dance moves (yes, that notorious cord-pulling water splash on the chair is there). At the same time, "Flashdance" also has to function as a song- and story-propelled stage musical on its own, and it often feels hampered when hewing to aspects of the original film that was stylistically only two steps away from being a series of early MTV videos.

Tom Hedley (who collaborated with Joe Eszterhas on the original screenplay) and Cary create a script for the musical that is a vast improvement over the film, which was filled with plot holes and underdeveloped characters.

"Flashdance" focuses on a self-reliant young woman named Alex Owens (a scrappy triple dancing/singing/acting threat in Jillian Mueller), who works as a Pittsburgh welder by day and as an artsy exotic dancer by night. Alex has dreams of becoming a professional ballet dancer, but her lack of training and self-doubt about her lower-class background keep her from auditioning at the elite Shipley Academy ballet school.

Before Alex actually gets the courage to audition, she finds a love interest in her steel plant boss Tom Hurley, played by a preppy-looking Matthew Hydzik. Thankfully, the show's authors reduced Tom's age to align closer with Alex's, making a more comfortable fit than the film couple.

Alex gets lots of support and advice from an aging former ballerina friend named Hannah (a hilariously regal and tart-tongued Jo Ann Cunningham) and fellow exotic dancers Kiki (Dequina Moore) and Tess (Katie Webber), who each get their own stand-out strip numbers.

There's also a weak subplot involving Alex's ditsy blonde friend, Gloria (Kelly Felthous), and her wannabe comedian boyfriend Jimmy (David R. Gordon), who both take wrong turns pursuing easy fame. Gloria gets ensnared by the rival strip club owner and drug pusher C.C. (slimily played by Christian Whelan), while Jimmy makes a poorly planned trip to New York.

Director/choreographer Sergio Trujillo oversees a cinematic staging that shifts seamlessly against the sliding panels of designer Klara Zieglerova's industrial set and the delineating projection designs of Peter Nigrini. Yet Trujillo's work often feels like window dressing to enliven the weak material -- particularly the moments when a crowd of unnamed breakdancers come out of nowhere to show off their moves in support of Alex.

There are a lot of skilled performers onstage in "Flashdance," and it becomes clear that their talents are being lavished on less-than-stellar material. Try as they can, the gifted artistic team and actors of "Flashdance -- The Musical" can't really make a silk purse out of the sow's ear of a film that inspired this whole enterprise.

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