Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Newsies started life as a 1992 Disney musical movie. It was a box-office dud but acquired a cult following through home video, no doubt abetted by the strong dance numbers, catchy tunes by Alan Menken and Jack Feldman, and a winning performance by a young Christian Bale as Jack Kelly. With a book by Harvey Fierstein that streamlined its plot, Newsies opened on Broadway in 2012 and was a major success, winning Tony awards for its choreography and for the six additional songs Menken and Feldman added to beef up the movie's score. Chanhassen Dinner Theatres has mounted the musical's first local production, lavishing its usual high standards to casting, staging and production values. For those who couldn't make it during the one week the national tour spent at the downtown Orpheum two years ago, and for those who did make it and want another jolt of this phenomenal entertainment, the six-month run at Chanhassen should be welcome news.
Newsies is based on an actual 1899 event, a thirteen-day strike by newsboys against the Joseph Pulitzer owned New York World and the William Randolph Hearst owned New York Evening Journal. Jack Kelly, the show's charismatic and handsome hero, is a fictional character who survives by his wiles and bravado, but dreams of getting away from the grime and crime of the city. He fantasizes an idyllic life in Santa Fe, even though he has never been there. Pulitzer decides to boost The World's profits by raising the price the company charges the newsies for each bundle of papers they sell, meaning they will have to sell more just to make the same paltry amount. Jack and the others, who already work as hard as they can with little to show for it, are outraged and a strike is called.
Mixed into the plot is Jack's secret artistic talent, the flamboyant operator of a popular floor show featuring leggy showgirls wearing very little (but enough to keep the musical family friendly), a corrupt agent for a gruesome orphanage set on catching Jack, and a feisty young woman resolved to break away from her duties as a society page reporter to cover hard news. The book is well crafted, with tangents that intersect and come together nicely by the final curtain, and enough laugh lines to balance out the newsboys' heartstring-tugging plight. If anything, the script could be accused of soft-peddling the hardships those children faced. Chanhassen wisely uses projections of archival photos of actual newsiesmuch younger than the twenty-something actors on stagewhich helps to place the horrible conditions of their lives in front of mind. We can enjoy the bright music and lively dancing, while remembering that it is all in service to a serious cause.
Mencken's music makes no effort to reflect turn of the century New York. With the exception of a throw-away number for Medda, the music hall hostess. it is full-tilt Broadway musical theater, with a balanced mix of upbeat songs that invite waves of dancing feet ("Carrying the Banner," "Seize the Day," and "King of New York"), full-chorused anthems ("The World Will Know," "and "Once and for All"), a couple of plot-driven numbers ("The Bottom Line," "I Never Planned on You," and "Watch What Happens"), and a sweet romantic ballad that serves as a reminder that Menken's greatest success has been writing award-winning songs for animated Disney movies. Jack's soaring expression of yearning, "Santa Fe," tops them all, delivered by Knezevich with an open heart and beautiful voice.
Knezevich has had major roles in other Chanhassen productionsDanny Zuko in Grease, Lancelot in Camelot, and Gaston in Beauty and the Beast. However, in Newsies, he has establishes himself as a major presence on the Twin Cities musical theater scene. His performance persuades us that he is seventeen-year-old Jack Kelly, caught between the struggle to improve life for himself and his friends on the street, and his desire to run away and have a clean, fresh start in life. He acts with conviction, sings beautifully, and moves with grace. His key partners in the strike are Alan Bach as Davey, Lucas Wells as Crutchie andon opening nightTanner Zahn Hagen as Les, and all give terrific performances. Bach's Davey is the voice of reasoned change, Wells' fully conveys Crutchie's tender heart and his resolve to overcome the handicap of a lame leg, and Hagen is poised and hilarious, as needed, as nine-year-old Les, who could step in and take charge any time. (Hagen alternates in the role with Jon-Erik Chamberlain.)
As Katherine, the reporter whose instincts bring her into the fold of the newsies' crusade, Ruthanne Heyward acts well, creating believable romantic sparks with Knezevich's Jack. Unfortunately, her singing seems hampered at times, as if searching for the music, but the nervous energy in her delivery of "Watch What Happens" is spot-on. Thomas Schumacher is easy to despisewhich is the intentas Joseph Pulitzer and Kersten Rodau plays Medda with a bountiful heart and about a shot-glass full of naughtiness. Andre Shoals is impressive in a throw-away role as Wiesel, who distributes the papers to the newsies with menace in his eyes and disdain for their ragged lives, a fate he probably barely escaped, and Keith Rice gives a delicious cameo as Governor Theodor Roosevelt. The only off-base characterization is Daniel S. Hines as a Jewish deli proprietor, played as an extreme caricature. The newsies each have their own name and distinctive personality, which greatly enriches the interactions among them, and they are all champion dancers. As newsies, flunkies, showgirls and nuns (at a soup kitchen), the ensemble members all do splendid work.
Director Michael Brindisi manages the essential balance in Newsies between incredibly spirited entertainment and a story that relays an important chapter in history that still carries relevance today, in our treatment of those on the lowest rungs of the employment ladder. He has assembled his usual cohort of creative team members to craft a production that hits the bulls-eye in every department. Tamara Kangas Erickson, house choreographer for recent Chanhassen productions, borrows quite a bit from the Broadway production of Newsies. The dances are fabulous, inventive, energizing and a delight to behold, with "Seize the Day" and "King of New York" each blowing the lid of the theater. A band of ten musicians plays the music with verve, led by conductor Andrew Bourgoin.
Chanhassen's sets are typically modest, given the constraints of the house, and Newsies is no exception, but they function extremely well. Costumes, designed by Rich Hamson, are a superb match to the period, from shoes to hats. Sue Ellen Berger's lighting effectively draws focus to different places on the stage, or throughout the houseChanhassen makes good use of the aisles between audience/diners' tables. Sound designer Russ Haynes has ensured that every voice and every note is clear and audible.
Newsies is a terrific show, one that delivers first-rate entertainment, heartfelt emotion, and a lesson about a notable episode in our nation's path to fulfilling its promise. With all that, and a terrific cast anchored by a truly memorable performance by Alex Knezevich, Chanhassen has found a great way to begin its fiftieth birthday celebration.
Disney's Newsies, through, September 29, 2018, at the Chanhassen Dinner Theatre, 501 West 78th Street, Chanhassen MN. Tickets including dinner and show: $65.00- $89.00. Show-only tickets, 10 or fewer days before performance: $50.00 - $74.00. Check website for senior (age 55+) and student (ages 5 - 17) discounts. For tickets call 952-934-1525 or visit www.chanhassendt.com.
Music: Alan Menken; Lyrics: Jack Feldman; Book: Harvey Fierstein, based on the Disney film written by Bob Tzudiker and Noni White; Director: Michael Brindisi; Choreographer: Tamara Kangas Erickson; Music Director: Andrew Bourgoin; Set Design: Nayna Ramey; Costume Design: Rich Hamson; Lighting Design: Sue Ellen Berger; Sound Design: Russ Haynes; Wig and Make-up Design: Paul Bigot; Production Stage Manager: Dan Foss.
Cast: Alan Bach (Davey), Rush Benson (Race), Jacob Berggren (Elmer), Scott Blackburn (Snyder), Jon-Erik Chamberlain *( Les), Michael Gruber (Nunzio/Mayor), Tanner Zahn Hagen * (Les), Reginald D. Haney (Oscar Delaney), Andrew Hey (Finch), Ruthanne Heyward (Katherine), Daniel S. Hines (Morris Delancey/Mr. Jacobi), Mark King (Bunsen), Aleks Knezevich (Jack Kelly), Lars Lee (Romeo/Spot Conlon), Joey Miller (Specs), Kasano Mwanza (Mush), Tod Peterson (Seitz), Keith Rice (Governor Roosevelt), Kersten Rodau (Medda Larkin), Thomas Schumacher (Joseph Pulitzer), Andre Shoals (Wiesel), Brandyn Tapio (Henry/Darcy), John Trow (Stage Manager), Janet Hayes Trow (Hannah), Tony Vierling (Albert), Lucas Wells (Crutchie). Ensemble: Michelle Barber, Jessica Fredrickson, Renee Guittar, Kole Nelson, Brett Pederson, Brian Saice. *Alternating performances