Newsies Seize the Stage
Photos by Rich Ryan Photography, 2018
If you have any doubts about “Newsies”’ Disney origins, they disappear with the first song by 17-year-old protagonist Jack, a smooth-talking, street-smart diamond in the rough played by Aleks Knezevich. As Jack looks out over his penthouse-worthy view of New York, similar to how Aladdin looks out over Agrabah from his rundown corner of the world, he sings of a place above the city smell, the pinching hunger and the rough armor of a cheeky smile. He sings of Santa Fe, and as his pitch perfect tenor soars above the audience, he paints a picture of paradise to his friend as starlight appears in Chanhassen Dinner Theatres.
With that song, Knezevich sets the mood for the night: It's to be good versus evil, an orphan boy against the world, from rags to … well, if not riches, then something more important: equal rights. “Newsies” takes its inspiration from the true story of the Newsboys Strike of 1899 when newspaper moguls like Joseph Pulitzer raised the price of the newspapers to get a higher profit margin at the expense of the lower class boys selling the “papes.” Although the story does touch on the squalor and exploitation the vulnerable youth of the Gilded Age dealt with, the Disney influence assures you a happy ending with lyrics of love, agency and the courage to “Seize the Day.”
As is par for the course for Chanhassen Dinner Theatres—happy 50th birthday to them, by the way—their small stage was full of the type of feel-good entertainment that can make a show the talk of the town. Smart blocking and movement by artistic director Michael Brindisi and choreographer Tamara Kangas Erickson give the bigger scenes the crowd atmosphere they need while still shining spotlights on the individual actors. While the pirouettes and jetes don’t jive as effortlessly into the ragtag tone of the characters as the tap dance numbers do, the ensemble perform them with polished perfection and a captivating exuberance.
The whole ensemble’s well-controlled harmonies keep their rebellion squeaky clean, and the actors know how to support each other in a scene without dominating it. The one exception might be little newsie Les (played alternatively by Tanner Zahn Hagen and Jon-Erik Chamberlain), but that’s not the actor’s fault. It’s apparent he’s been told to ham up his lines and, to be fair, on the night I saw it, the audience gave Hagen a round of applause for every one-liner and dance feature he had.
“Newsies” has its strength in group numbers, and even the beautiful harmonies between Knezevich and Alan Bach, who plays Davey with an ever-growing spitfire, best find their purpose in turning a group song into an anthem. However, when the leading ladies receive their chance to shine in the musical, they don’t waste it. Out of everyone, the ladies are the ones who truly blend their character with their singing. “That’s Rich” by theater maven Medda (Kersten Rodau) is indelicate, belting, but not obnoxious, and “Watch What Happens” by aspiring journalist Katherine is another one to look out for. Katherine is played by a lofty Ruthanne Heyward who warms up to Jack (and whom the audience warms up to) with each scene, and with this number, she shows just how badly she wants her dream.
There are a few moments where the pacing seems a little odd or a potential character-development moment feels a little skipped over, but chalk it up to an adapted book or to Disney being Disney. Whichever you choose, any small blemishes aren’t nearly enough to derail a fun night out, and plenty of delightful details, like Michael Gruber’s role as the hair dresser Nunzio, cancel them out completely.
“Newsies” is cheesy without being too superficial, old school while having streaks of relevancy, and it’s bound to put a smile on your face. Plus, it’s at Chanhassen, so if your experience is anything like mine, you’ll have excellent servers (shout out to my server, Paula, who made me feel like a queen), and the towering chocolate cake for two is worth the extra treat.