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Newsies, the Musical
Music by Alan Menken, Lyrics by Jack Feldman, Book by Harvey Fierstein
Directed and Choreographed by Chris Bailey
The Muny
August 7, 2017

Cast of Newsies
Photo: The Muny

Thinking of shows that seem like they are made for the Muny, I think Newsies would be a prime example. The big, energetic Disney musical is ideally suited for a large outdoor stage like the Muny’s, and there’s a lot of room for the youth ensembles as well. As the closing show for the Muny’s 99th season, Newsies proves to be an excellent fit for the venue, as well as a rousing, well-cast and immensely entertaining production.

The show, based on the Disney film, tells a fictionalized version of a true story–a strike by newsboys in New York City in 1899. Here, the focus is on a group of “newsies” who deliver papers for the New York World newspaper, led by Jack Kelly (Jay Armstrong Johnson), a teenage orphan with artistic talents and dreams of moving west. When World publisher Joseph Pulitzer (Davis Gaines) decides to raise the prices that the newsies pay for the papers they sell, Jack finds himself the leader of an impromptu union, along with his friend Crutchie (Daniel Quadrino), his new friends Davey (Spencer Davis Milford) and Davey’s little brother Les (Gabriel Cytron), and the rest of the neighborhood’s newsies, with hopes of rallying support from those from other papers and throughout the city. The movement is covered by ambitious reporter Katherine Plumber (Tessa Grady), who harbors a secret and finds herself attracted to Jack. As the movement grows, Pulitzer, the show’s obvious villain, grows agitated, and the newsies enlist the help of local entertainer Medda Larkin (Ta’rea Campbell), for whom Jack occasionally works painting backdrops for her theatre. The newsies’ strike becomes front page news, but Pulitzer’s efforts to stop it threaten to run Jack out of town and make conditions even worse for the newsies.

I’ve seen this show before, twice, on tour, first in Chicago and then here in St. Louis. I enjoyed both of those productions, but I think this production works even better not only because of its excellent cast, but because of the unique staging opportunities the Muny affords. The Muny Kids and Teens, for instance, are ideally suited for a show like this, to fill out the cast in a way that doesn’t seem manufactured or forced in the least. The direction and choreography by Chris Bailey is in a similar vein to the touring show, but the big Muny stage lends a great advantage for this show full of energetic leaping, spinning, and tapping. ¬†Michael Schweikardt’s set also works well, with movable set pieces in the steel-beam platform style of the tour, but allowing for more flexibility of movement for the production and its large cast. There’s also excellent lighting by John Lasiter, striking video design by Nathan W. Scheuer, and colorful period costumes by Leon Dobkowski to help complete the overall look and atmosphere of the production.

The cast here is simply superb. ¬†Johnson, with his strong voice and amiable stage presence, makes an ideal Jack Kelly. His scenes with his fellow newsies and with Grady’s terrific, spunky Katherine are highlights of this production. There’s also great work from Milford as Davey, young Cytron as Les, Campbell as Medda, and all of the newsies as well. I’ve always thought Pulitzer has been written as something of a cartoon villain in this show, but Gaines does an excellent job with the role as it’s presented. There’s a first-rate ensemble as well, including the Muny’s Youth Ensemble, helping to populate the Muny stage and contribute the energetic, tuneful production numbers.

Newsies is a fun show, with a big, enthusiastic cast. And at the Muny, it’s bigger, bolder, and better than ever. It’s been a great season at the Muny, and this show closes it out with style.

Cast of Newsies
Photo: The Muny

The Muny is presenting Newsies in Forest Park until August 13, 2017.

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The Music Man
Book, Music, and Lyrics by Meredith Willson, Story by Franklin Lacey
Directed by Rob Ruggiero
Choreographed by Chris Bailey
The Muny
July 5th, 2016

Joseph Torello, J.D. Daw, Ben Nordstrom, Adam Halpin, Hunter Foster Photo: The Muny

Joseph Torello, J.D. Daw, Ben Nordstrom, Adam Halpin, Hunter Foster
Photo: The Muny

The Music Man, ideally staged, is a great big, delightfuly corny slice of old-fashioned Americana. It’s been performed at the Muny many times, and this is the third production I’ve seen there. This year, although it’s still a bright, colorful, energetic show with some great technical elements and truly wonderful choreography, it’s somewhat marred by some awkward casting and some bizarre directorial choices.

The story is a familiar one to many theatregoers. Professor Harold Hill (Hunter Foster) is a traveling salesman and smooth-talking con artist who arrives in River City, Iowa with the aim of swindling the townspeople with grand dreams of a boys’ band, and then running off with their money. What Harold doesn’t count on, though, is that this time he will get attached, particularly to earnest young librarian Marian Paroo (Elena Shaddow) and her family, including her feisty Irish mother (Liz McCarthy) and shy little brother Winthrop (Owen Hanford), who is self-conscious because he speaks with a lisp. The town is full of larger-than-life characters, such as the self-absorbed, bumbling Mayor Shinn (Mark Linn-Baker) and his gossipy wife Eulalie (Nancy Anderson). There’s also Harold’s old friend and somewhat reformed accomplice, Marcellus Washburn (Todd Buonopane), and the bickering school board members (Joseph Torello, J.D. Daw, Ben Nordstrom, and Adam Halpin), who through Harold’s influence become a frequently singing barbershop quartet. What Harold doesn’t know is that rival salesman Charlie Cowell (Michael James Reed) is out to expose Harold’s scheme, although what Charlie doesn’t know is that Harold isn’t so sure he wants to go through with the scam anymore.

This is a show that basically demands ideal casting for its title role, and unfortunately the Muny’s production doesn’t get that. Foster, who was outstanding a few years ago as the Pirate King in Pirates! or, Gilbert and Sullivan Plunder’d, is miscast as the fast-talking Hill. He noticeably struggles with the rhythm on iconic songs like “Trouble” and “76 Trombones” and stumbles over the lyrics in “The Sadder But Wiser Girl” and “Marian the Librarian”. He also doesn’t quite project that sheer spellbinding energy that is essential for Harold Hill, although his performance does improve in Act 2. Shaddow, as Marian, gives a fine if somewhat laid-back performance as Marian, and she has a great voice, although the chemistry between her and Foster is lacking. The supporting players fare better, with truly excellent comic performances from the amiable Buonopane as Marcellus, and from Linn-Baker and Anderson as the Shinns. The real stand-outs, though, are Torello, Daw, Nordstrom, and Halpin who are truly marvelous as the school board-turned-quartet. There’s also an outstanding ensemble and first-rate dancing on production numbers like “76 Trombones”, “Marian the Libriarian”, and “Shipoopi”.

Visually, the show looks great. There’s a wonderful nostalgic set by Michael Schweikardt that takes full advantage of the Muny stage’s turntable, providing an excellent effect in “76 Trombones” as the ensemble appears to march throughout the town. There are also excellent, colorful period costumes by Amy Clark, superb lighting by John Lasiter, and strong video design by Rob Denton.

This is a wonderful looking show, with some great comic performances and a great ensemble, although some of the alterations to the script are puzzling. For instance, changing the timeline so that Harold arrives the week of Flag Day instead of the 4th of July is not adequately explained. It seems to have been done for no reason other than that the show is being performed during 4th of July week so that the Act 2 “Ice Cream Sociable” can be the “4th of July Sociable”. There’s no apparent “story” reason for the change, and it just comes across as awkward. Still, if you’re looking for a big, bright, musical show with a great old-fashioned score and some incredible dancing, then the Music Man is sure to entertain. It’s not an ideal production, but it does have its moments.

Cast of The Music Man Photo: The Muny

Cast of The Music Man
Photo: The Muny

The Muny is presenting The Music Man in Forest Park until July 11, 2016.

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