Spring Arts: You Like It Soft, Don’t You?

Mark Siano milks ’80s camp for all it's worth.

Mark Siano and the Freedom Dancers are intently discussing the choreography of their upcoming show The Soft Rock Kid during a late-night rehearsal. It's supposed to be a cheesy tribute, via music, comedy, and dance, to '80s pop culture, in particular The Karate Kid. But three weeks before its debut, the show has its fair share of issues.Queen's "Don't Stop Me Now" is blaring from Siano's laptop. He wants the troupe of six to link arms and roller-skate in time to the music. "We're just going to skate in a straight line? That's boring," one of the dancers says bluntly. The line isn't straight anyway. "It looks a little like a swastika," another dancer observes worriedly. They all let go of one another's arms."I have a radical idea," Siano announces. "What if we just dim the lights, turn on a disco ball, and skate around in circles?"It's an easy, albeit silly, solution, which he predicts will elicit laughter from the audience. Siano would know. He's produced more than 20 shows in the past three years, including the beloved "Soft Rock Explosion" series, which sold out at Re-bar, Chop Suey, and The Triple Door. Cornball '80s-inspired variety shows are his specialty.Though Siano listens to KEXP and his favorite band is Radiohead, he says "You can't help but feel that everyone in music today is hiding beneath a veneer of irony. They shy away from being sincere. It's not like before, when someone like Phil Collins would sing about his emotions in the loudest, most wrong voice possible."Siano is very familiar with that sound. In 2007 he returned to Seattle, dejected, after failing to make it as an actor in L.A. He gave up his show-business aspirations and took a job working the front desk of the Polyclinic, where soft rock is heard overhead all day long. It amused him, but also lifted his spirits. And his appreciation grew for the music's unabashed sentimentality."I've always had a dormant passion for music by Lionel Richie and Phil Collins," he says, laughing. "But listening to [Warm] 106.9 FM on a regular basis really brought it to a head. I enjoy people who aren't afraid to speak of love in epic tones...the ones who embrace the cheesy and the dramatic."After several months spent entertaining co-workers with over-the-top sing- and dance-alongs to various ballads, he regained his confidence and decided to take his antics to the next level. "I thought, if I can make them laugh in the office, maybe I can get them to laugh at me in an actual show."He enlisted his favorite people in Seattle—his sister, his ex-girlfriend, his friends from college—to form an ensemble that shared his appreciation for Collins and all things related. Mark Siano and the Freedom Dancers were born.Three years later, the troupe is being showcased this weekend at ACT Theatre's Central Heating Lab, which supports new work by local artists. "I managed to convince them we were a hot enough act to take on," Siano enthuses.This production presents more of a challenge than his previous work because it incorporates a structured story line—something there wasn't room for when the six friends were performing in bars and clubs. The Soft Rock Kid pays homage to '80s pop culture, but it also tells the tale of how the Freedom Dancers came to be. It was still very much a work in progress at the time of this interview.Siano admits that working with friends has its challenges. "It's a double-edged sword," he says. "It's much harder to be authoritative with your friends than it is with random people. But it's also more fun. There's a connection we share that goes beyond being in the same cast."Once he and the Freedom Dancers run through a few completed numbers, it becomes obvious that they have a blast performing together. They exchange grins and high-fives as they bust moves to songs like Bonnie Tyler's "Holding Out for a Hero" and a-ha's "Take On Me." I feel like I'm at a high-school slumber party with girls who've just watched Dirty Dancing for the first time. It should be irritating, but instead it's entertaining and even endearing."The magic ingredient is that we sincerely love the '80s," Siano says. "We're not winking through the entire show. God, can you imagine how lame that would be?" (Yes, I can. It's called Xanadu.)"We understand that others find 'Take On Me' a very cheesy song. That's fine. But you know what? We actually do love the song—and it shows. That's what makes what we do so much funnier."ehobart@seattleweekly.com

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