Friday, May 3, 2019

'Newsies' displays pizazz and collective focus of Civic Theatre at the Tarkington

Pumping fists and coordinated jumps are a powerful presence throughout "Newsies."
"Les Miserables" helped make it safe for a hit musical to blare forth a message of agitation by have-nots against society's haves. "Billy Elliot" was a successor in a more up-to-date setting. But before that saga of English coal miners' struggle in the context of a lad's dance dreams came "Newsies," also a show that started life as a movie and later proved to have stage legs.

The real-life origin of the 1992 film (adapted for theatrical presentation in 2011) was the 1899 labor struggle of a niche underclass of newspaper boys hawking the product on the streets of New York. Booth Tarkington Civic Theatre's production is now in its second weekend at its home theater, the Tarkington at Carmel's Center for the Performing Arts, and makes the search for betterment through collective action a cause only a nasty person could oppose.

Putting a premium on sheer entertainment is the key. The show presents a head-spinning parade of production numbers, continually showcasing virtually all-male dancing and singing. The newsies of the title are never far from center stage. Threaded through a story that necessarily puts any focus on individuals in second place is the improbable romance between the newsies' leader, Jack Kelly, and a female reporter, Katherine, who disguises her identity as a ruthless publisher's daughter working for another newspaper under an assumed byline.

Novice labor leader Jack confronts powerful publisher Pulitzer.
Jack's dream of escape takes the form of a sung declaration of  how much better life would be in Santa Fe. His song carrying the city's name is prominent at the beginning and end of Act 1. Like everything he invested in the role, Jake Letts made the most of the song on Thursday night. His well-knit, lyrical tenor, which was also capable of conveying as much passion as his speaking voice, lifted up some more routine numbers, "I Never Planned on You" and his second-act duet with Katherine, "Something to Believe In." The big solo for the other half of the show's love interest is "Watch What Happens," in which Ani Arzumanian, as Katherine, put across both the doubts and the determination of a young woman reporter feeling her way into the world of real news in an era when it was difficult for female newspaper journalists to get off the "society" desk.

These two leading roles were charmingly filled, and there were nice contributions by other actors that helped to modify the impression that "Newsies" was overreliant on ensemble song and dance. As burlesque impresario Medda, Tiffany Gilliam represented how thoroughly money culture reaches the lower levels of striving in the big city, singing the sarcastic "That's Rich." At the top of the pyramid is Joseph Pulitzer, publisher of The World, vying with William Randolph Hearst to exploit the boom in readership provided by the Spanish-American War.  The show's creators — Alan Menken and Jack Feldman (songs) and Harvey Fierstein (book) — have made him a stock villain, and the only choice is to play him to the hilt, as Steve Kruze does in delivering "The Bottom Line."

Suzanne Fleenor directs the show, drawing from the large cast a commitment to vivid storytelling that never wanders off into subtlety. And with choreography by Anne Beck, "Newsies" consistently brings forward the energy of sympathetic lowlifes (all of them speaking fluent N'Yawk here)  objecting to their lowly lot. We are taking in a show that's unmistakably a fantasy anchored in reality.  The production's upbeat vigor and the athleticism of its dancing arouses the mischievous thought that never have the downtrodden been so difficult to tread down. That makes their successful rising up all the more an outcome they richly deserve.

This amounts to the obvious way to treat social history in a musical, and the production team is on board with putting it across. Lighting, sets, and costumes hint at urban grittiness, but the violence and the plot's depressing turns clearly function to make the eventual triumph register more indelibly on our pulses. "Newsies"' winged victory-in-the-making comes through loud and clear  in "Carrying the Banner," "The World Will Know," and "King of New York." Such rousing songs, under Brent E. Marty's effective musical direction, make us want to shout "We're with you!" to the show's heroes.

Something else that registers and makes "Newsies" relevant in 2019 is the expansion of the boys' passion for self-improvement into other social needs. "Intersectionality" is all the rage in the left-of-center activist community today. Though I found the show lots of fun but pretty superficial, "Newsies" anticipates the current  tension in social movements between looking out for yourself and people like you on the one hand and, on the other, seeing how your group's suffering is mirrored in the lot of other oppressed people, and might be addressed in concert with them.

The newsies come with strenuous resolve to this realization —  a recognition that's a significant part of the show's uplift. They notch a place in urban history by risking outreach, connecting with other exploited children. Thus, one of the reasons to see Civic's "Newsies" may well be to contemplate how much any collective struggle has to develop an #UsToo component in order to succeed. But if you only go for the heart-warming spectacle, that's enough, too.

[Photos by Zach Rosing]

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