Monday, March 12, 2018

Chanhassen Dinner Theatre's Newsies Is Timely and Terrific

Few things are more powerful than an idea whose time has come. 


Photo by RICH RYAN PHOTOGRAPHY, 2018

It's been a little over two years since I saw Broadway's rendition of Newsies at the Orpheum (read original review here). It was the first opportunity I'd had to see the show live, and I greatly enjoyed it - but what a difference two years can make.

Photo by RICH RYAN PHOTOGRAPHY, 2018

At the time I first saw Newsies, the primaries for the presidential election were just gearing up; there was no Women's March or Parkland Students or #resistance; and the seeds of our current collective discord were just beginning to be sown. I won't re-hash the intricacies of Newsies' plot - you can click here to read my initial summary for a low-down - but suffice it to say, there seems to be far more current parallels between the Chanhassen Dinner Theatre's (CDT) excellent new production of Newsies and our current state of affairs than was true in 2016. Themes of social justice, collective resistance, the David vs. Goliath battle between capitalism and the people who serve it reverberated powerfully throughout the audience, and Newsies' inspiring end led to a collective sigh of relief and gratitude by the end of the show.

Photo by RICH RYAN PHOTOGRAPHY, 2018

This new staging is perfect case of right cast in the right parts at the right time, beginning with Aleks Knezevich in his most star-turning role to-date. Knezevich is born to play the part of Jack Kelly, with an inimitable Noo Yawhk accent and a charming swagger. His gorgeous voice soars through songs like "Santa Fe" and "Something to Believe In," and he had the whole audience swooning by the end of Act I. Ruthanne Heyward makes a lively partner for Knezevich as Katherine Pullitzer, an undercover reporter who sheds light on the newsie strike. Heyward shares her trademark pluck in this role, and she and Knezevich have great chemistry. An even better vocal pairing for Knezevich is the glorious voice of Alan Bach as Davey, co-leader of the strike. I'm not sure if I just wasn't paying attention to him in past productions or what, but Bach has a terrific voice that feels made to sing these songs - especially the rousing solo in "Seize the Day."

Photo by RICH RYAN PHOTOGRAPHY, 2018

Tanner Zahn Hagen is one to watch and a CDT newbie as the young Les, and he has a bright future ahead. Kersten Rodau has a standout solo as the vaudevillian Medda Larkin, and I wish we had more of her throughout the show. Keith Rice is similarly scene-stealing in his quick cameo as Teddy Roosevelt, and Lucas Wells is fabulous as Crutchie, with a heartrending solo on "Letter From the Refuge." The rest of the ensemble features several exciting young new artists, and their electric dancing and exquisite harmonies soar through the score (my faves? The thoroughly magnetic "The World Will Know" and hum-inducing "Seize the Day").

Photo by RICH RYAN PHOTOGRAPHY, 2018

The costumes, designed by Rich Hamson, are spot-on to the time period and don't get in the way of the marvelous choreography by Tamara Kangas Erickson. I've always thought of Newsies as a more dance-heavy show and I was not disappointed; with the amount of spins and flips and grand jetés on this stage, we could almost be back at the Olympics! The scenic design from Nayna Ramey is quite understated and has the heaviest usage of projection I've seen in a CDT show, which made me simultaneously bummed out and fascinated with the series of historical photos they scrounged up to share. The sound design from Russ Haynes is a perfect blend between voice and the orchestra, beautifully directed by Andrew Bourgoin. And clever lighting design from Sue Ellen Berger allows actors to seamlessly slip in and out of the spotlight, keeping the feel of the show at a brisk pace.

Photo by RICH RYAN PHOTOGRAPHY, 2018

I can't think of a better way to kick off CDT's 50th anniversary season (yes, 50 years - such an incredible achievement!) than this beautifully rendered production. Anyone who knows me knows that I have a huge soft spot for stories like Newsies. I love to see examples of the collective power of united citizens triumphing over overwhelmingly bad odds. Strikes like the Newsboys' Strike and the March of the Mill Children, the true stories that provide the foundation for the plot of Newsies, are some of our nation's best such tales, and it's never a bad time to revisit the lessons they contain. So many of the workplace benefits we enjoy today - like 40 hour work weeks, weekends off or paid national holidays - are directly correlated to collective action and union bargaining, and it's no coincidence that we have seen workers rights trampled as the state of unions has collectively decreased. Maybe it's time for us to seize our own day and fight for more rights - if Newsies can't inspire you to harness your power as an American citizen, nothing can. The terrific Newsies runs at CDT through September 29; for more information or to buy tickets, click on this link.

Photo by RICH RYAN PHOTOGRAPHY, 2018