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Newsies
Music by Alan Menken, Lyrics by Jack Feldman, Book by Harvey Fierstein
Directed by Jeff Calhoun
Choreographed by Christopher Gatelli
Oriental Theatre, Chicago
December 12, 2014

Stephanie Styles, Dan DeLuca Photo by Deen Van Meer Newsies the Musical

Stephanie Styles, Dan DeLuca
Photo by Deen Van Meer
Newsies the Musical

Over the weekend, I took a road trip to Chicago to see the US National Tour of Disney’s Newsies. Based on the film of the same name that flopped at the box office but then developed a sizable cult following,  the stage show ran for two years on Broadway and has now embarked on an ambitious tour that is unfortunately not scheduled to play in St. Louis in the near future. The good news is that it’s going to be running in Chicago for almost a month, so there’s plenty of time for St. Louisans to make the journey to see this upbeat, wonderfully cast and impressively produced show.

I approached this production as something of a Newsies newbie. I’ve never seen the film and had only heard a few songs and seen a few performance clips from the stage show.  I knew the basic plot, but that’s about all, although I’ve found that this tour is an excellent introduction to the show. The story, loosely based on an actual event, follows a group of newsboys working for the New York World newspaper in 1899.  Most of the boys are orphans, like the charismatic, artistically talented Jack Kelly (Dan DeLuca), his friend Crutchie (Zachary Sayle) and others. Even those who aren’t orphans are poor, relying on their income from selling papers to support themselves and their families, like rookie “newsie” Davey (Jacob Kemp) and his younger brother, Les (Vincent Crocilla alternating with Anthony Rosenthal). When the paper’s owner, Joseph Pulitzer (Steve Blanchard) raises the price of the papers, it affects the newsies because they have to pay for the papers they sell, and having to pay more up front means they will earn less. With Jack as the leader and Davey as the “brains”, the newsies form a union and begin a strike, but not without major complications and clashes with the authorites.  Meanwhile, a young reporter, Katherine (Stephanie Styles), who seeks to advance her career and help the newsies by writing about their cause, finds herself attracted to Jack, although a secret she’s keeping from him threatens their burgeoning relationship.

This is a very Disney spin on the story, with the emphasis on the energy and drive of the youthful characters, who are much more well-rounded than most of the adults, with the exception of burlesque entertainer Medda Larkin (Angela Grovey), for whom Jack paints backdrops, and who allows the newsies to use her theatre for rallies. Pulitzer is something of a mustache-twirling villain for most of the show, although that’s a minor quibble considering the real focus here is on the teenagers and their quest for better working conditions not just for themselves, but for other young workers throughout the city.  There are a few most-likely deliberate echoes in the staging of another show that features a group of idealistic young men rebelling against authority, Les Miserables, only this one is a lot more upbeat.  Even though this is a show for all ages, its primary audience seems to be teenagers, who are likely to be inspired by the determination and drive of this group of likable tough guys trying to make a difference, discovering their own strengths and talents in the process.

The producers have assembled a top-notch cast for this tour, led by the dynamic DeLuca, who will best be remembered by St. Louis audiences as Lucas in The Addams Family at the Muny in July.  DeLuca brings considerable charm, strong dance skills and a powerful singing voice to the role of the sensitive but guarded young Jack. He’s a more than capable leader for this group of loveable misfits, bringing emotion to numbers like “Santa Fe” and gutsy zeal to energetic group numbers like “Seize the Day” and “Once and For All”.  His scenes with the equally charming Sayle as Crutchie and Kemp as Davey are strong points of this production, and he displays great chemistry with Styles as the plucky Katherine.  Styles and Kemp, for their parts, are also standout performers, with Styles bringing a great blend of sympathy and excellent comic timing to her solo number “Watch What Happens”, and Kemp showing a lot of heart as the initially mild-mannered and somewhat nervous Davey, who gains confidence as the story develops.  There are also memorable performances from Grovey as Medda, whose big voice gets a great showcase on “That’s Rich”, and Crocilla as the enthusiastic youngest newsie, Les.  Blanchard also turns in a fine performance as the self-centered, villainous Pulitzer. As for the rest of the newsies, there are too many to mention them all by name, although they form a cohesive and eminently likable ensemble with a great deal of heart, strong voices and athletic dancing on songs like “Carrying the Banner”, “Seize the Day” and the showstopping tap-dance number “King of New York”.  This is an ensemble filled with youth and boundless, infectious energy, making for a very fun show.

Visually, this show is simply a wonder, with some of the most impressive sets I’ve seen, especially for a touring production. Designed by Tobin Ernst, the set is constructed of several multi-level units that fit together in various ways as the plot demands. Surrounded by ladders and metal piping, these units effectively evoke the network of fire escapes that are such a ubiquitous feature of the New York City landscape. The units can also be arranged together in a kind of grid, emphasizing the athleticism of the staging as the cast climbs up and down all those stairs with seemingly endless verve.  The use of projections, originally designed by Sven Ortel and adapted for the tour by Daniel Brodie, is particularly ingenious as Jack draws and we see what he’s drawing, or Katherine types and we see the result immediately over her head.  The overall color scheme in blues, grays and browns and reds is reflected in the set and in Jess Goldstein’s period-specific costumes and Jeff Croiter’s striking lighting design.  From these top-notch technical elements to Christopher Gattelli’s dizzyingly dynamic choreography with all its jumping, leaping, kicking and spinning, this show is a treat for the eyes and ears.

Disney’s Newsies on tour is a memorable high-quality show that is well worth a trip to Chicago to see.  It’s a shame it’s not coming to St. Louis anytime soon, but if you’re planning a holiday trip to the Windy City, why not “seize the day” and see this show? You don’t have to just “read all about it” when you can see it. Chicago is only a few hours away, and this show is well worth the trip.

Cast of Newsies Photo by Deen Van Meer Newsies the Musical

Cast of Newsies
Photo by Deen Van Meer
Newsies the Musical

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It’s almost that time again! Summer is rapidly approaching, and that means Muny season. This year introduces a big change for the Muny—a new Executive Director, Mike Isaacson. It looks like Isaacson’s first season will be eventful, as well, with fewer 5-6 year repeat shows and more shows making their Muny debuts. Before sharing my thoughts on the new season, though, I thought I’d address some criticisms I’ve heard and answer the general question of “why should I care about the Muny?”

Love it or hate it, the Muny is a St. Louis institution.  I understand the criticisms– some theatre critics want it to be less conventional and more imaginative, and some St. Louis-based performers wish the powers that be would cast more locals in leading roles.  I understand both of these criticisms and agree to a point, but for the most part I love the Muny.  It’s not Broadway or the West End, but there is often top-level talent involved, and the shows are usually enjoyable and often excellent. This is a company that puts together seven full-scale musical productions in three months with very little rehearsal time per show. There have been some uneven productions and odd casting, but there have also been some truly spectacular productions such as Les Miserables in 2007. In the eight years I’ve lived in St. Louis, I’ve come to regard the Muny as an essential summer activity. Despite its limitations, I enjoy the Muny and I take its productions seriously, and I look forward to each new season.

What the Muny does well is to bring musical theatre to audiences of thousands every summer, on a huge stage in a gigantic venue in the middle of one of the most beautiful urban parks in the country.  OK, I’m biased here, but Forest Park is wonderful, and so is the atmosphere of the Muny.  The whole experience of going to a show at the Muny is an important part of its draw, but the shows are what will keep bringing the audiences back.

Some would argue that the Muny stagnated over the past decade or so under the leadership of longtime Executive Director Paul Blake, and in a way I agree. It did seem like we saw a lot of the same shows and same people over and over, and it will be nice to see some changes.  Still, as big as it is, it is never going to be a cutting-edge venue.  It has to appeal to the masses, but the producers could stand to take a few risks.  It will be interesting to see how much energy Isaacson will be able to inject into the venerable institution in his first season at the helm. The selection of shows for the 2012 season certainly looks like a step in the right direction.  Here’s the list, with my thoughts following:

Thoroughly Modern Millie

Chicago

Aladdin

Dreamgirls

Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat

Pirates! (Or, Gilbert and Sullivan Plunder’d)

The King and I

First off, I have to say I’m somewhat surprised that neither Chicago nor Dreamgirls had ever been produced at the Muny before. Both are well-known, much-loved shows with popular film versions, so the appeal to the massive Muny crowds is obvious.  It will be great to see both of of these shows on the enormous Muny stage.  Dreamgirls also has the added attraction of Jennifer Holliday, re-creating the role she originated on Broadway, Effie White.  It has been argued that Holliday is now too old for the role and realistically, at 51 she probably is, but  I’m not sure if that matters as much in the context of the Muny.   She’s still Jennifer Holliday, and if she performs well (and I’m sure she will), that’s what matters. We will see how it all plays out, and I’m intrigued.  I’m also wondering how Chicago will play on that enormous Muny stage.  I’m looking forward to finding out.

As for the rest of the schedule, it’s encouraging to see that there are only two shows that have played at the Muny before. One of my biggest criticisms has been the frequent recycling of shows, and it’s great to see that not happening as much this year.  I’m especially looking forward to seeing the Muny debut of Thoroughly Modern Millie, and I’m very curious about Pirates! since it’s supposed to be a re-imagining of The Pirates of Penzance and I wonder exactly what that re-imagination will look like. There will also be some technical upgrades like the new LED “scenery wall” that promise to provide a new look to the productions.

In terms of casting, it looks like the Muny is changing the regular routine as well, going for more “star power” in names like Holliday in Dreamgirls, Leslie Uggams in Millie, and American Idol runner-up Justin Guarini in Joseph.  There is more casting still to be announced, but I find myself wondering if we won’t see as many Muny “regulars” this season.  I hope we do see a few, because there are some perennial Muny performers that I would love to see on stage again, like Curtis Holbrook, Kate Baldwin, Joneal Joplin and Ken Page.  Based on the casting that has already been announced, though, I wouldn’t be surprised if a few more big names will be part of the lineup.

So the bottom line is, I’m optimistic.  Because of a few summer commitments, I don’t think I will be able  to see all the shows this season, but I’m going to try to make most of them, and I am eager to see how this next chapter in the Muny’s history will unfold.  Maybe there is hope that we’ll finally get a Sondheim show in the near future. I think Into the Woods would be most likely in that vein, and as for the older but timeless classics,  I’m still holding out hope for Carousel. I do hope the Muny surveys stick around, and if they do I will be voting for both of those shows. That’s the future, though, but it does seem promising.  This season seems like a significant step in a new direction, and so far I’m liking it.

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