Yesterday, Playbill published an interesting article on 8 theatre podcasts you should be listening to. Through this article I discovered a new favorite podcast, The Ensemblist (FB), which explores the life and importance of the ensemble. This is one thing I was thinking about last night when I saw the touring production of “Disney’s Newies“ (FB), now at the Hollywood Pantages Theatre (FB). This was because the real star of Newsies was not the lead performers (although they were great) — it was the Newsies themselves and their supporting ensemble. More on that in a moment.
Before I get into the story of Newsies, I must tell you that I suffer from this weird conceit: I believe every story starts on the stage and then moves to the screen. Thus, I believe William Shakespeare wrote Pulp Fiction, and the lost play was discovered and made into the movie. I similarly believe that Newsies started as a successful musical, and then someone time-travelled back and made the poorly received movie musical version. This makes a lot of sense, given that many successful musicals do not translate well to the screen.
Newsies tells the story of the historical newsboys strike of 1899. One might think that a strike over a hundred years ago has no relevance today, but I saw direct parallels between the strike story in Newsies and the current battle between LA actors and Actors Equity. The notion of a mass of people standing up for their rights against an authority who is imposing work rule changes that could destroy what gives them life — that’s a common epic story that resonates with many. The trick is to tell that story in a way that conveys the power of the masses, without becoming sappy or syrupy.
The stage version of Newsies (book by Harvey Fierstein (FB), based on the Disney film written by Bob Tzudiker and Noni White (FB); music by Alan Menken (FB); lyrics by Jack Feldman [utilizing many of the movies’ songs, but surprisingly not crediting J.A.C. Redford, who was credited with the movie’s music]) does that reasonably well. You can find the full synopsis on Wikipedia, but in short: Jack Kelly is a “newsie” — a boy who earns a living selling papers in the street for a major New York newspaper at the turn of the 20th century. He longs to escape New York where he is a cog that is ground down, and move to Santa Fe NM where he can be a big man in a small town. But before he can do so, he must sell papes (newspapers) to earn money. We learn how he does so in the opening; we also meet two new “newsies”: Davey and his younger brother Les. They became newsies to support their family, after their father’s leg was mangled in an industrial accident and he was fired. These boys are newsies for Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World, which is seeing a drop in circulation. Pulitzer summarily decides to raise the price of the papers he sells to the newsies from 50¢/100 to 60¢/100; he figures the boys will sell more papers to make the same amount of money, thus increasing his circulation. In response to this, however, the Newsies decide to form a union and go on strike. Their effort is publicized by Katherine Plumber, a reporter Jack meets while hiding out at a theatre owned by his friend, Mella Larkin. When the boys attempt to blockade the newspaper distribution carts and prevent scabs from delivering the papers, a melee ensues between the scabs, the boys, Pulitzer’s goons (Morris and Oscar Delancy), and the police. Many boys are injured, and Jack’s friend, Crutchy, is taken to “The Refugees”, a boys prison from which Jack escaped, run by the evil Snyder. Jack just wants to give up and run away to Santa Fe, but Davey and Les convince him to go back an organize a rally to organize the Newsies in all the boroughs. When Jack goes to invite Pulitzer to present his side at the rally, he discovers (a) that Katherine is Pulitzer’s daughter, and (b) Pulitzer wants to neutralize Jack, either by paying his way to Santa Fe, or putting him in jail in the Refuge. Katherine convinces Jack that the way to win is to get all the children in New York to go on strike. They sneak into the World, print a screen written by Katherine, and do so. This works, Pulizter partially caves (they compromise on the price, and Pulitzer agrees to buy back unsold papers), and Jack ends up winning the girl. Close curtain.
I’ll note that when they traveled back in time to make this into a movie, they made some changes that impacted the story. The reporter was male and unrelated to the publisher, and Kelly’s love interest was Davey’s sister. They changed the race of Medda Larkin, and reworked the timing of the story. It didn’t work. They should have stuck with the original musical 😉 .
This is clearly a story designed to tug at the heart: you’ve got a ragtag team of good children fighting the big bad boss. The music is energetic and uplifting — on the verge of marches — that just pulls at you. There is the occasional ballad and “I want” song, but nothing overly sappy. About the biggest problem the story has is its predictability. The biggest problem the music has is that it is stretched — we keep hearing the same themes and melodies over and over. Having heard the movie soundtrack, this was a problem there as well. Reading the history, it is worth noting that this was intended as a limited run and not a Broadway hit (clearly designed as a musical for the school market), and its audience success propelled it to a two-year run on Broadway. My wife’s comment about the music was that she kept hearing melodies and underscores that were reminiscent of Aladdin, another Disney musical that was written by the same composer and released the same year as Newsies. I didn’t notice those undertones, but they didn’t surprise me as that is common with composers.
What makes Newsies overcome any weaknesses in the book or the score are the Newsies and the rest of the dancing ensemble. As directed by Jeff Calhoun and choreographed by Christopher Gattelli (FB), many of the major rousing numbers are full-on energetic dance numbers, and they just “wow” you out of your seats. This is why I truly believe that the Newsies and ensemble are the true stars of this show — when you walk out of this show, it is their performances you principally remember. This team, some of whom I’ll individually highlight later, consisted of: Dan DeLuca (FB) (Jack Kelly), Stephanie Styles (FB) (Katherine), Jacob Kemp (FB) (Davey), Zachary Sayle (FB) (Crutchie), Anthony Rosenthal (Les at our performance), Evan Autio (FB) (Scab, Ensemble), Josh Assor (FB) (Ensemble), Joshua Burrage (FB) (Darcy, Ensemble), Benjamin Cook (FB) (Race, Ensemble), DeMarius R. Copes (FB) (Henry, Ensemble), Julian DeGuzman (FB) (Finch, Ensemble), Nico DeJesus (FB) (Romeo, Ensemble), Sky Flaherty (FB) (Albert, Scab, Ensemble), Jeff Heimbrock (FB) (Elmer, Spot Conlon, Ensemble), Jordan Samuels (FB) (Specs, Ensemble), Jack Sippel (FB) (Mush, Ensemble), and Chaz Wolcott (FB) (Scab, Ensemble). Their dancing was just truly spectacular. However, that wasn’t everything. These young performers were just radiating a joy at performing that was contagious — they were having so much fun doing this show that the audience picked it up and a feedback loop occurred, amplifying the effect for all. This is truly a show where the ensemble is the real star.
In the lead individual performance positions are Dan DeLuca (FB) (Jack Kelly) and Stephanie Styles (FB) (Katherine). DeLuca is a wonderful dancer and an engaging performer; he broadcasted a believability that was just great. In addition to the ensemble numbers, he was wonderful in his solo numbers, such as “Santa Fe”. As for Styles, ahhhh … I was smitten. Styles had a beautiful and expressive face, danced wonderfully, and was spectacular in both her solo and duet numbers. This is an actor who I hope I see more of — there’s something about her personality and joy of performing that just comes through. I’ve seen a few actresses like that, and they rapidly become favorites.
In supporting performances on the Newsies side were Jacob Kemp (FB) (Davey), Anthony Rosenthal (Les at our performance; he alternates with Vincent Crocilla (FB)), and Zachary Sayle (FB) (Crutchie). Kemp and Rosenthal gave believable performances, and Rosenthal wowed the crowed with his cuteness. As with the rest of the ensemble, all sang and danced well. Sayles was particularly touching in his solo number.
This show wasn’t all kids. In the lead supporting “adult” performer positions were Kevin Carolan (FB) (Joseph Pulitzer) [at this performance; the role is normally played by Steve Blanchard (FB)] and Angela Grovey (FB) (Medda Larkin). Carolan is in just a few scenes, but he does a great job in all of them conveying the appropriate bluff, bluster, and position of the great Joseph Pulitzer. He does well in his one song, “The Bottom Line”, and its reprise. Grovey really only has one spotlight performance — her song “That’s Rich” is an eleven o’clock number done at nine o’clock — a true showstopper, great performance. She reappears briefly for some scenes in act II, but you remember her for “That’s Rich”. Luckily, she nails it :-).
Rounding out the named performers were the assistants to Joseph Pulitzer [Mark Aldrich (FB) (Seitz, Ensemble), Bill Bateman (Bunsen, Stage Manager, Ensemble), and Melissa Steadman Hart (FB) (Nun, Hannah) [at our performance, normally Meredith Inglesby (FB)†]], Pulitzer’s goons and employees [Michael Ryan (FB) (Morris Delancey), Jon Hacker (FB) (Oscar Delancey), Michael Gorman (FB) (Wiesel, Mr. Jacobi, Mayor)], the bad guy Snyder [James Judy (FB)], and the others [Eric Jon Mahlum (FB) (Governor Roosevelt) [normally Kevin Carolan (FB)], Molly Jobe (FB) (Nun, Citizen of New York)]. Swings not previously mentioned were Stephen Hernandez (FB) and Andrew Wilson (FB). All seemed to be enjoying what they were doing and had great performances.
[†: Inglesby’s Facebook page explains why both she and Steve Blanchard were out and we had the swing shuffle — she’s married to Blanchard, and for some reason were away for that performance]
Rounding out the music and dance credits. Of the aforementioned actors, Andrew Wilson (FB) was the dance captain; Josh Assor (FB) was his assistant, and Kevin Carolan (FB) was the fight captain. Lou Castro was the associate choreographer. On the music side, Michael Kosarin (FB) was the music supervisor and arranger, Danny Troob (FB) did orchestrations, Mark Hummel did the dance music, John Miller was the music coordinator, and James Dodgson was the music director and conductor. The orchestra, as just noted, was conducted by James Dodgson. Faith Seetoo (FB) was the associate conductor, and Chip Prince (FB) was the assistant conductor. Orchestra members consisted of [T = Touring; L = Local]: Paul Baron (FB) [T] (Trumpet/Flugel); Joe Wallace (FB) [T] (Bass); Heinrich Kruse (FB) [T] (Drums); Faith Seetoo (FB), Chip Prince (FB) [T] (Keyboards); Jeff Marder (FB) [T] (Electronic Music); Kathleen Robertson [L] (Violin); Paula Fehrenbach [L] (Cello); Dick Mitchell [L] (Flute, Piccolo, Clarinet, Soprano Sax, Alto Sax, Tenor Sax); Wayne Bergeron [L] (Trumpet); Andy Martin [L] (Trombone, Bass Trombone); Paul Viapiano [L] (Guitar); Wade Culbreath [L] (Percussion); David Witham [L] (Keyboard Sub). The orchestra had a truly full sound; something that I miss in these days of small bands masquerading as orchestras.
Turning to the technical side of the story: The scenic design was by Tobin Ost (FB), and was relatively simple in its complexity. There were a large number of projection screens to provide the location (original Broadway projection design by Sven Ortel, adapted by Daniel Brodie); there were a few actual sets for places like Pulitzer’s office. The rest consisted of large metal multilevel structures sized to fit into a touring semi that were turned and rotated to provide all the other locations. Very, very clever. The sound design by Ken Travis and the lighting by Jeff Croiter worked reasonably well. For the most part, the sound was some of the best I’ve heard in the Pantages, and the lighting created the mood. There were a few local problems — the occasional sound drop, the occasional spot operator who couldn’t find the actor. Costume Design was by Jess Goldstein, with hair and wig design by Charles G. LaPointe. All were affective and appeared reasonably period. Fight direction was by J. Allen Suddeth. Remaining company credits: Telsey+Company (Casting); Ann Quart (Associate Producer); Geoffrey Quart (Technical Supervisor); Christopher A. Recker (General Manager); Jeff Norman (Production Stage Manager); Richard J. Hinds (Associate Director).
Disney’s Newsies continues at the Hollywood Pantages until April 19. Tickets are available through the Pantages Box Office and Ticketmaster. There is a day of show lottery for $20 tickets. There are some tickets available on Goldstar. The show is quite enjoyable and well worth seeing. It’s not a deep thought show, but it is a very fun show.
The Pantages Theatre has announced their next season. In a previous post I discussed my thoughts on the upcoming Pantages season.
I Love 99. Walking out of Newsies, I received an email from the Pantages asking what I thought of the show. I thought of replying that I was impressed that the Pantages put on a show than encapsulated the AEA/pro99 fight so well, and seemed to support the pro99 side. I mean, look at what the Pantages put on: Joseph Pulitzer, in order to bring in more money, arbitrarily attempted to impose a price hike of what he charged the newsies. This is just like AEA attempting to impose minimum wage on the 99 seat theatres in Los Angeles. In both cases, the imposed prices was unsustainable and threatened the livelihood of the Newsies/99 seat theatres. So what did the Newsies/99 Seat Theatre supporters do? They banded together to protest the hike. They demonstrated to the city the value of their work and their product. The Newsies did this by getting the children to strike; pro99 has done that by getting elements of all stakeholders — actors, designers, producers, audiences, stage managers, critics — to band together to let the world know about the vital role of intimate theatre to the overall theatrical ecosystem. Reporters — such as Katherine Plumber/Pulitzer — or our own Colin Mitchell of Bitter Lemons — have done a yeomans job of spreading the word. In the musical Newsies, Pulitzer didn’t win, but the status quo wasn’t retained either — a compromise was reached that benefited all stakeholders. The price went up slightly, but unsold papers could be sold back. In the real world, that’s all we’re asking for. Vote down this arbitrary AEA proposal, and let the stakeholders on all sides work up a compromise that serves all interests — a compromise that lets intimate theatres that can grow; that lets intimate theaters that are lucky enough to have sufficient grants, donations, and ticket income to pay the actors something closer to what they are worth (and they are worth much more than minimum wage); that lets those actors that want to provide pro-bono or below market professional services; that ensures safe working conditions for both union and non-union actors.
So, what should you do. If you are an AEA actor, vote no. If you are a stakeholder in Los Angeles theatre, visit www.ilove99.org to learn more about what is happening. Then go see Newsies at the Pantages — and watch the story and see the parallels to the 99 Seat Theatre fight (and know you are watching a very talented troup of AEA actors, for this is an Equity tour). If you can’t afford that, go to any of the excellent 99 seat theatres throughout Los Angeles and support your local actors. By the way, if you are an audience member, keep an eye on this blog for a special announcement in just a couple of days.
Ob. Disclaimer: I am not a trained theatre critic; I am, however, a regular theatre audience. I’ve been attending live theatre in Los Angeles since 1972; I’ve been writing up my thoughts on theatre (and the shows I see) since 2004. I do not have theatre training (I’m a computer security specialist), but have learned a lot about theatre over my many years of attending theatre and talking to talented professionals. I pay for all my tickets unless otherwise noted. I believe in telling you about the shows I see to help you form your opinion; it is up to you to determine the weight you give my writeups.
Upcoming Shows: April starts with a highly recommended show at a local 99 seat theatre: Trevor at the Atwater Village Theatre (FB), starring Laurie Metcalf, on the 2nd night of Passover. The following weekend has a different form of theatre: the Renaissance Faire on April 11 (just wait until AEA tries to unionize that — the Queen will be livid!). The following weekend will see us back at a music store listening to a performance: this time, it is Noel Paul Stookey at McCabes Guitar Shop (FB). After that we’re in Vegas for a week — I haven’t yet determined the shows yet, but Menopause the Musical looks quite likely, possibly Don Rickles at the Orleans, and Penn & Teller are on Goldstar. May begins with “Loopholes: The Musical” at the Hudson Main Stage (FB) on May 2. This is followed by “Words By Ira Gershwin – A Musical Play” at The Colony Theatre (FB) on May 9 (and quite likely a visit to Alice – The Musical at Nobel Middle School). The weekend of May 16 brings “Dinner with Friends” at REP East (FB). The weekend of May 23 brings Confirmation services at TAS, a visit to the Hollywood Bowl, and also has a hold for “Love Again“, a new musical by Doug Haverty and Adryan Russ, at the Lonny Chapman Group Rep (FB). The last weekend of May currently has a hold for “Fancy Nancy” at the Chance Theatre (FB), “Waterfall“, the new Maltby/Shire musical at the Pasadena Playhouse (FB), and “Murder for Two” at the Geffen Playhouse (FB). June is equally crazy, as we’ve got the Hollywood Fringe Festival (which should include a production of “Marry Me a Little” by Good People Theatre (FB)), a matinee of the movie Grease at The Colony Theatre (FB), a trip out to see the Lancaster Jethawks, our annual drum corps show, and hopefully “Matilda” at the Ahmanson Theatre (FB). As always, I’m keeping my eyes open for interesting productions mentioned on sites such as Bitter-Lemons, and Musicals in LA, as well as productions I see on Goldstar, LA Stage Tix, Plays411.