BWW Review: NEWSIES Grabs Headlines at MSMT

BWW Review: NEWSIES Grabs Headlines at MSMT

In a season that continues to top itself, one show after the other, Maine State Music Theatre's fourth and final main stage production of Disney's Newsies is an epic accomplishment for the company and one that firmly establishes it as one of the finest regional theatres in the country. As one of only three companies to get the regional rights to this mega Broadway hit, MSMT has mounted a thrilling, large scale production that is an electrifying, heart wrenching, and profoundly uplifting theatrical experience that will leave you in what Artistic Director Curt Dale Clark has called a state of "ecstatic exhaustion."

Disney's Newsies , which tells the story of the 1899 New York newsboys strike, began life as a 1992 movie that proved a box office flop, but went on to become a cult classic with a huge following by the time it opened in its Broadway musical version in 2011. The stage production with a score by Alan Menken, lyrics by Jack Feldman, and a book by Harvey Fierstein, won two Tonys; it ran for 1005 performances before going out on national tour and being filmed live for Fathom events. MSMT's production, not only honors this smash hit tradition, but is, in this critic's opinion, the finest production of the show I have seen to date with direction, choreography, and cast to leave one speechless in awe.

Newsies is, of course, a great dance show, but in director/choreogreapher Marc Robin's vision, it becomes that and ever so much more. One of contemporary theatre's true geniuses, Robin knows how to tell a story and make it both exciting and meaningful. He cares about every character in this tale, and he helps shape their individual, as well as collective journeys with humor, pathos, and deep empathy. His pacing of the piece is rapid fire and cinematic as actors and scenery move briskly from one moment to the next, keeping the audience completely engaged. His is a production that is virtuosic without ever seeming so, and therein lies much of its irresistible appeal.BWW Review: NEWSIES Grabs Headlines at MSMT

Robin is, however, also one of the most talented choreographers working today. His dances for Newsies are athletic, aerial, acrobatic, high energy, high impact sequences fraught with the tension of the New York streets and the newsboys strike. Performed by a young and insanely talented ensemble of dancers who leave the audience breathless, Robin creates one dazzling number after another from Act One's "The World Will Know" and "Seize the Day" to Act Two's "King of New York" with its stunning tap dance and the fireworks finale. Moreover, as director/choreographer, Robin brings to Newsies a cohesiveness, an intensity, and an identification with the play's issues- the strike with its David and Goliath overtones, the abuses of child labor and the powerful rich, the freedom of the press, and the rights of women, and he is able to make his audience care as deeply and passionately as he does about them.

Music Director Ray Fellman draws stunning ensemble harmonies and solo vocal performances from the principals, and he leads the nine-person orchestra with brio.

Charles S. Kading's set design is visually exciting - conducive to arresting stage pictures at the same time that it contributes to the brisk flow of the action. The design in neutrals that suggest the ivory and black of newsprint; there are sketched drops and a multi-tiered series of three units that move with choreographic smoothness - many times while the actors are climbing the stairs or transitioning from scene to scene. Lighting Designer Dan Efros completes the look with his chiaroscuro and occasional bursts of vivid color and with the overlay of his projections that add motion and texture to the visual ambiance. Kathleen P. Brown supplies the ragtag costumes for the newsboys and the dignified period attire for the adults, allowing her imagination a flight of fancy with Medda Larkin's flamboyant dresses. Shannon Slaton creates a perfectly balanced sound design that is nuanced, rich, and live, while Stage Manager Mark Johnson works his customary magic in coordinating everything with perfect precision.

The cast for this Newsies is top flight and offers a complement of principals who is beyond brilliant in every way. Matt Farcher gives a searing account of strike leader Jack Kelly. A powerhouse of vocal talent and an actor with the gift of total transformation, he completely inhabits the role from the spot on New York accent to the hunch of his shoulders and the would-be tough swagger of his walk, to the combination of boyishness, impetuosity, and vulnerability of the character. His rendition of "Santa Fe" is a show stopper, dazzlingly sung with power, passion, and blow-you-away intensity and identification. The moment is quite simply incandescent.

BWW Review: NEWSIES Grabs Headlines at MSMTKate Fahrner makes a spirited foil as Katherine Plumber. The chemistry between her and Farcher in both the sparring and tender moments is palpable. She exudes a confidence, dignity, and toughness that encases a softer girlishness. He big patter song "Watch What Happens" is a rapid-fire, manic moment that is marvelously sung and acted.

As Medda Larkin, Angela Grovey brings a voice and a stage presence as imposing as the character herself - the burlesque diva with a heart of gold, wise, wily, and resourceful, and she delivers her big number "That's Rich" with bring-down-the-house vocalism. Justin Schuman makes an intelligent, gentle Davey, while young Timothy Woodward, Jr. makes Davey's little brother Les a perky, street wise urchin. Blake Stadnik captures perfectly the forlorn sweetness of Crutchie, making his "Letter from the Refuge" scene a moment that melts the heart.

Playing the characters in the halls of power, Brian Sutherland portrays Joseph Pulitzer as an icy patrician who is accustomed to the world doing things his way, and he uses his mellifluous baritone to deliver "The Bottom Line" with a self-satisfied entitlement. Tony Lawson (Seitz) and Adolpho Blaire (Bunsen) are appropriately sycophantic, while Lilly Tobin (also Bowery Beauty, Nun) plays Hannah, Pulitzer's secretary with working class charm. Mickey White (also a touching cameo as a repentant scab) and Kevin Murray are unsavory thugs as Delancey Brothers, Pulitzer's henchmen, while Glenn Anderson makes Snyder the repugnant villain he should be. Bill Bateman plays a trio of colorful roles - Jacob, the Mayor, and most notably the cruel Wiesel, and Mark Aldrich (also Nunzio)has a winning cameo as a warm and witty Teddy Roosevelt.

The ensemble of newsboys and other New York characters is peopled with young, brilliant triple threat performers, who convincingly assume a number of roles, dance with legendary aplomb, and sing their souls out as they tell this story with conviction and heart. Each contributes unique talents. Marty Lauter (Tommy) demonstrates star charisma as a dancer and tumbler with the technical virtuosity and ability to defy gravity that produces repeated audience gasps. Similarly, Brian Liebson (Finch), Michael Carrier (Buddy), Kevin Murakami (Ike) perform some dazzling tumbling and acrobatic dancing. Matthew Marvin (Henry), Bentley Black (Albert), Daniel Yearwood (Race) shine in the tap sequence, while Ross Thompson (JoJo) brings a wiry electricity to his dance and character. John Pletka (Romeo), Joshua Bellamy (Specs), Mateo Menendez (Spot Conlon), Mike Baskowski (ike), Cody Smith (Elmer), Kyle Samuel (Mush), and Donovan Hoffer replacing Elliot Marach (Buttons) all contribute well-differentiated, colorful characters and electrifying dancing. Gerianne Pérez effectively plays a sweet-voiced nun, a Bowery beauty, and a tender-hearted passer-by. The level of detail in the portrayals as well as the sheer, visceral energy of the collective ensemble effort makes this a cast one wishes to experience over and over again in order to appreciate its every virtue.

BWW Review: NEWSIES Grabs Headlines at MSMTThe overall effect of these performances and MSMT's beautifully conceived and executed staging of Newsies is an incomparable evening in the theatre that makes a breathtaking finish to another stellar season. But, in many ways, this production of Newsies represents much higher stakes for the company. Not only is it the biggest dance show in the company's history, but also arguably, it is one of the most ambitious productions in MSMT's fifty-nine seasons. The artistic vision, the production concept, the quality of the casting, the sheer vitality and dazzle of the performers all offer a theatrical experience that speaks to the respected place the current artistic leadership has secured for MSMT on the national scene, at the same time that it delivers a production that surpasses every expectation and enshrines itself in memory.

And if all this is not enough news to stop the presses, here's a headline to take away: SEIZE THE DAY! SEE MSMT'S NEWSIES NOW! This is a thrilling theatrical experience that you are sure to remember for a very long time to come.

Photos courtesy of MSMT, Roger S. Duncan, photographer

Disney's Newsies runs from August 9-26, 2017, at MSMT's Pickard Theatre, 1 Bath Rd., Brunswick, ME 207-725-8769

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From This Author Carla Maria Verdino-Süllwold

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