BWW Review: NEWSIES at Des Moines Playhouse: A New Generation is Giving Audiences Something to Believe in.
A new generation is taking over the Des Moines Playhouse! I'm not talking about a new artistic director or the close of their 100th season. This generation can be seen on stage in DMP's production of Disney's "Newsies: The Musical" which opened this weekend. I say a new generation because half, if not more, of the cast are making their DSM debuts, and if this production is any indication of where the Playhouse is going, they will be around for another 100 years and more.
If you are unfamiliar with Disney's "Newsies: The Musical," it is based on the 1992 film that while not a success in its original theatre release, became an on video juggernaut. The movie was based on the story of the 1899 newsboys strike. They went on strike when the newspapers in New York decided to raise the price of the papers to the newsboys that were selling them. For many of the newsboys, selling papers was their way to get food for themselves or even their families. Their strike cut production for the newspapers down by 50 percent. But did the papers give in, or did they reach some sort of compromise? That is something you will have to attend the show to find out. This features the classic tunes from the movie written by Alan Menken, with new music by Alan Menken and Lyrics by Jack Feldman. The book for the show is by Harvey Fierstein.
Part of the fun of seeing multiple different productions of a show is seeing how each director sees the material and how they decide to tell the story. For me, David Kilpatrick's direction made this one of my favorite telling of "Newsies." To me, it felt that the story was being put on by the newsies at Medda's Theatre. I thought it was a great way to tackle the story and one that many people haven't seen before. He accomplishes this a few ways. The first is by having the Newsies do many of the set changes as we go from scene to scene. His staging also had Medda leaving being the last person to leave the scene. There are also times throughout the show that the Newsies are out in the aisles of the theatre.
"Newsies" is also a very heaving dance show. The choreography provided by Megan Helmers not only gave me the classic moves that I wanted to see but was able to do it in a way that was her own. Her touch could be seen in every song that featured choreography. My favorite number of the show was "King of New York." Megan was able to work with these students to put together one of the best tap numbers I have seen on stage. The movement was sharp and together through the entire number. With the energy, the cast brings to her choreography, this "King of New York," is my favorite rendition of the number that I have had the opportunity to see.
Leading the cast of Newsies was Gavin Runles in the role of Jack Kelly. From the beginning of the show when Jack is talking with you get a sense that Jack is a dreamer as he sings of Sante Fe, but what drew me into Gavin's performance was the caring he showed towards Crutchie. It makes it clear to the audience why he is the leader of the newsies. The caring he showed, also helped see why he makes some of the decisions he does later in the show. I also appreciated the charisma he brought to the character. Every time he is on stage Gavin draws you to his performance. This allows the audience to feel his highs and lows. By allowing the audience into the emotions his character is going through, it made his performance of "Santa Fe" one of the most heartbreaking renditions I have heard. While the first time we hear the song we get a sense of dreaming, when we get the full song at the end of act 1, his performance shows that "Santa Fe" is his escape from the horrors he sees in New York.
One of the horrors Jack refers to is the refuge. From the beginning of the show, Jack talks about how he escaped from the Refuge and how he refuses to go back. One of the great things the writers of "Newsies" did when the show went on tour was to add a song for Crutchie towards the top of act 2 called "Letter from the Refuge." Will C. Johnson brought the role of Crutchie to life. As he sang the song, he did an amazing job of going beyond the text of the song. While the song gives the audience a sense of the horrors of the refuge, Johnson shows the effects it is having on Crutchie. This is most evident when Crutchie shares how he plans to get out, then the mood shifts as he faces reality. Will lets us see that Crutchie still has that dreamer inside, but he now understands it's just a dream. It was another heartbreaking moment in this amazing show.
While most of the Newsies have joined together to form a family, as their parents are not part of their lives, we are introduced to two at the top of the show whose parents are still alive. This would be brothers Davey and Les, played by Stanislav Przedlacki and Ryan Henzi respectively. I appreciated that Stanislav took Davey on a character arch that I wasn't expecting, and it worked really well with the context of the show. I felt with his Davey, he was reluctant to join up with the Newsies, but eventually became ok, and embraced being one of the Newsies. When he stands up to Pulitzer at the end of the show, there is a sense of sarcasm that we wouldn't have seen from the Davey at the beginning of the show.
Ryan Henzi as Les brought a mind to the character I had not seen before. When he stood up to Jack at the begging requesting a 50/50 split of the profits if they work together, was delivered in a way that said he knew what Jack was trying to do, and that he understood the value that he and Davey brought to the team. I appreciated that his character didn't rely on him being a cute kid saying a line here or there. By doing this, it made each line impactful and made him a character to root for as well.
Without someone telling the story of the newsies, we wouldn't know about them today. In the stage version, this is done by a reporter who's byline is Katherine Plumber, played excellently by Lauren Taylor, who is one of many making their Playhouse debut in this production. I enjoyed her interpretation of Katherine. This was best displayed during "Watch What Happens" as she goes from a journalist who doubts herself, to a journalist that is ready to take on a story and give voice to a group of people who wouldn't have had one otherwise.
While the Newsies do an amazing job they are supported by an amazing cast of adults. My favorite performance from the adults came in Alexandra Gray's performance of Medda Larkin. She really impressed me with how she played with the audience during "That's Rich." Her powerhouse vocals brought another level of entertainment to the song. At the end of the song as she sings the last few "That's Rich" she puts every note she had into it which was a thrill and the strongest ending to the song I have ever heard. I also appreciated how when she would talk with the newsies, the look she gave them, let the entire audience know what she was thinking at the time. My favorite moment came after the rally they hold at her theatre. The look she gives Jack shows disappointment, hurt, but an understanding of the situation. It was these subtle moments that made her performance of Medda one I'll never forget.
Des Moines Playhouse production of "Newsies is a not to be missed production. Every element comes together and plays off the other elements beautifully. This new generation of Playhouse talent will give you "Something to believe in." "Newsies" will continue through August 4. But hurry before tickets run out." To find out more about this production visit https://www.dmplayhouse.com/events/disneys-newsies
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