2/17/2017

Disney's "Newsies": Hey, Youse Guys, Carpe Diem!

Kara Lindsay & The Cast of "Newsies"
(photo: Disney Theatrical Productions)
 
Extra, extra, read all about it! Stop whatever you're doing and go reserve tickets to one of the two remaining showings of the absolutely thrilling production of Newsies. Recent Fathom Events HD broadcasts of Broadway shows (the fabulous She Loves Me and surprisingly moving Allegiance) have given theater buffs hope for a secure future for this kind of hybrid. On a vastly superior level, Newsies, a collaboration from Fathom Events and Disney Theatrical Productions (hopefully the first of many such events) is a recorded-live musical right from the stage of the venerable Pantages Theater in Hollywood. Based on the 1992 Disney musical film about the real-life Newsboys Strike of 1899, this 2011 live stage version premiered at Papermill Playhouse in New Jersey (where a stage version of Disney's Hunchback of Notre Dame also premiered). It transferred to Broadway in 2012, where it was nominated for eight Tony Awards including Best Musical, and won two, for Score and for Choreography. That Broadway version ran for just over a thousand performances. It was a very unlikely concept for film or stage, written for the screen as it was by two theatrical neophytes, Bob Taudiker and Noni White, featuring a cast of kids in a period piece. Thanks to a star turn by relative newcomer Jeremy Jordan, a creative director in Jeff Calhoun, and the especially breathtaking genius of Choreographer Christopher Gattelli, this was astonishingly wonderful theater, an unqualified hit.


The Cast of "Newsies"
(photo: Disney Theatrical Productions)

Well, maybe a somewhat qualified hit, as the Book by Harvey Fierstein, as the “newsies” might put it, ain't poifect; occasionally somewhat sentimental and simplistic, but then, it is what it was. It begins up on a New York City tenement roof, as paperboy Jack Kelly (Jordan) sings to his disabled buddy (also a newsboy), Crutchie (Andrew Keenan-Bolger) that he hopes to leave New York someday for Santa Fe. Newspaper publisher Joseph Pulitzer (Steve Blanchard) announces he's upping the cost of newspapers to the “newsies”, forcing them to sell more papers just to get by. This rouses Jack to plan to rebel, but he's trying to avoid a run-in with the crooked Snyder (James Judy), who runs The Refuge, a juvenile jail from which Jack formerly escaped after being caught stealing food. Meanwhile, he's busy painting scenery for his friend performer Medda Larkin (a true Meadow Lark in Aisha De Haas), the proprietress of a vaudeville theater, but notices news reporter Katherine (the spunky Kara Lindsay) reviewing the show, and flirts with her, to no avail. Since Jack isn't comfortable with public speaking, fellow newsie Davey (Ben Fankhauser) rallies the troops to strike and Seize the Day. Crutchie is beaten, captured by Snyder, and sent to The Refuge. Jack, again on the tenement roof, feels guilty yet reprises his dream-of-escape anthem, Santa Fe.

Act II finds Kathryn cheering up the newsies with the front page article she wrote about their strike. They break into song imagining wealth (King of New York), and convince Jack to take the risk of freeing Crutchie. He confronts Pulitzer, who tells Jack he knows about his criminal record, but promises he will ensure Jack's safety from prosecution if he ends the strike, also revealing that he is Katherine's father. Meanwhile, Spot Conlon (Tommy Bracco), the head of the Brooklyn newsies, declares they're in support of Jack's newsies. Jack tries to get them to agree to a compromise by Pulitzer, but they turn their backs on him. He and Katherine declare their mutual trust and love (Something to Believe In), which convinces Jack to reveal Pulitzer's blackmail attempt. With the paper effectively shut down, Pulitzer ultimately agrees to buy back all the papers from the newsies at a profit for them, Crutchie is freed, The Refuge is shut down, and the strike is ended. Jack is offered a job by Pulitzer as a political cartoonist, initially turning down the offer and deciding finally to head for Santa Fe. When Katherine says wherever he goes she will go, he changes his mind, decides she may be in his future, and takes the job as cartoonist. The newsies declare they are now truly Kings of New York.


Kara Lindsay & Jeremy Jordan in "Newsies"
(photo: Disney Theatrical Productions)
 
This recorded-live production boasts five principal roles played by the folks who originated them on Broadway: Jack, Katherine, Crutchie, Spot Conlon, and Les (Ethan Steiner, in a terrific turn that belies his young age). As a matter of historical interest, Jordan, after seeing the original film version at age nine dreamed that he would someday play the role of Jack (now at the ripe old age of thirty-two); he also appeared as one of the leads in the musical Bonnie and Clyde, as well as Finding Neverland and the television series Smash. This production features a much augmented ensemble cast from the Broadway and National Touring Companies, making the Tony-winning Choreography by Gattelli better than ever, and that's saying a lot: the dancing on newsprint number has to be seen to be believed. The rousing score features Music by Alan Menken and Lyrics by Jack Feldman, with terrific creative team contributions including the Scenic Design by Tobin Ost, Costume Design by Jess Goldstein, Lighting Design by Jeff Croiter, Sound Design by Ken Travis, Original Projection Design by Sven Ortel with Projection Adaptation by Daniel Brodie, Music Direction by James Dodgson and Orchestrations by Danny Troob. It should be noted that the theatrical version added six songs never heard in the film version (which at first failed to catch fire, but became a cult hit on DVD); the present production also includes a touching song written for the National Tour, Letter from The Refuge, sung by the character of Crutchie, and Keenan-Bolger delivers it with tremendous heart. Mention should also be made of the performance by Fankhauser with his memorable voice. But, in the end, it's Jordan as Jack and the Choreographer Gattelli who make this production soar.

The story of Newsies is a timeless one. It has more energy and excitement than a dozen musicals, and seeing it up close and personal, with every line of dialogue clear as glass and every facial expression captured, makes this a must. By all means see it and you too will become a “fansie”, as its numerous followers self-describe their devotion. As the newsies themselves might put it, Carpe Diem. Hey, and that ain't even English, that there's Latin.

Fathom Events will repeat “Newsies” Sat. Feb.18th at 12:55pm & Weds. Feb.22nd at 7:00pm.



2/08/2017

PPAC's "Curious Incident": It All Adds Up

Adam Langdon in "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time"
(photo: Joan Marcus)

As its title suggests, the play The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time promises to be an unusual experience. What piques our curiosity is not just the strangeness of the title but the equally strange journey it suggests. Based on the popular 2003 novel by Mark Haddon, its West End premiere took place in 2012, subsequently brought to Broadway in 2014. It became the longest running Broadway play in the past decade, winning five Tony Awards including Best Play and Best Direction of a Play (for Marianne Elliott, who helmed the London version as well as this touring one). Light years ahead of any theatrical production with its technical brilliance (and no fewer than 373 lighting cues), here are a few stunning facts about just how complex and complicated those tech elements are in this National Touring Company. Starting with five tons of steel in the floor and walls, there are fourteen one-ton chain hoists for the lighting rigging and motor to accommodate thirty-one variations of stage heights and rakes. There are 234 sound cues, consisting of some 2,593 differing elements. Its use of six projectors produces ten and a half million pixels across the stage. The results are absolutely mesmerizing (especially a harrowing subway scene). It's no wonder that sound, lighting and set design all won 2013 Olivier Awards in London, and lighting and scenic design for the 2015 Tony Awards. In the present production, Scenic and Costume Design are by Bunny Christie, with Lighting Design by Paule Constable, Video Design by Finn Ross, and Sound Design by Ian Dickinson, all impeccable and all repeating their London contributions.

But technical achievements aside, what most distinguishes this theatrical treat is its amazingly involving storytelling, translated and transformed from page to stage by the playwright Simon Stephens. As they say about restaurants with dazzling design, you can't eat the d├ęcor. What you can take in and digest is the convoluted yet totally absorbing tale of a fifteen year old (presumably with autism or Aspergers Syndrome, but the play doesn't address diagnoses) who discovers the titular canine done in by a pitchfork and proceeds on a quest to solve the murder in true Holmes-ian fashion, appropriate since the title of the book and play reference a quote by the great fictional detective himself from Conan Doyle's short story Silver Blaze. But this is not a mystery in the deductive sense. What matters in the end is not the solution but the process of reasoning, primarily by Christopher John Francis Boone (Adam Langdon), and those with whom he intersects along the way, from his teacher Siobhan (Maria Elena Ramirez), to his father Ed (Gene Gillette) to a crucial discovery at the termination of his quest, Judy (Felicity Jones Latta). At some performances, given the demands of the role, Benjamin Wheelwright will play Christopher. But every member of this ensemble, including a dog (named Sandy) and a curious rat (named Toby), has been artfully chosen for maximum impact under Elliott's keen direction. The play also conveys a sense of humor, as when Christopher remarks that “the word 'metaphor' is a metaphor”, “acting is like lying”, or when the obvious is stated, “we're not exactly low maintenance, are we?”.

There is little one can describe that wouldn't negatively affect the unanticipated but real joy of discovery of the play's revelations, even for those familiar with the source novel. Nothing one has heard about its visual and auditory splendors could possibly prepare a theatergoer for the overall impact of this work. There were some sound difficulties related to the more intimate moments in the play being performed in such a large venue, but ultimately this is a mathematically ingenious piece that succeeds in presenting a multi-faceted, time-warping, mind-boggling and satisfying resolution. The level of astonishment is, well, immeasurable.

All for a piece that features the versatility of math. Go figure. As Christopher himself would no doubt put it: Q.E.D.

2/07/2017

New Rep's "Brecht on Brecht": Alien Nation

Matthew Stern (piano), Carla Martinez, Brad Daniel Peloquin, Jake Murphy, Christine Hamel
in "Brecht on Brecht"
(photo: Andrew Brilliant/Brilliant Pictures)

The 1961 off-Broadway revue with music, Brecht on Brecht, translated and arranged by George Tabori, surely is ripe for a revival by New Rep's Artistic Director Jim Petosa. It's a worthy inclusion in its series of “Prophetic Portraits”, with its obvious resonance in today's political climate. Bertolt Brecht, pacifist playwright, poet and theatrical director renowned for his political and social activism, is also known for his body of work against oppression in all its guises. Thus this compilation couldn't have been more prophetic given the present pathetic state of the union. Brecht, who ultimately fled Hitler's regime, had developed in Berlin his concept of non-linear “Epic theater” that should alter an audience's consciousness about scientific, political, and social issues. It could now also be seen as epoch theater, that spoke then and continues to speak now. Ironically, he would subsequently flee America as well when the House Un-American Activities Committee evolved with its own brand of oppression, and returned back to Berlin in 1949 where he would found the Berliner Ensemble with his wife actress Helene Weigel. Much of his work forms the forbidding framework for Brecht on Brecht with some occasional music by his collaborators Kurt Weill and Hanns Eisler.

For some idea of the parallel universes of two political administrations, Germany then and America now, consider the following excerpts: “from political ignorance is born...the worst thief of all, the bad politician, corrupted, and flunky of the national and multinational companies”; “things will improve for us...I don't ask when”; or “would it not be simpler if the government simply dissolved the people?”. He proposed some responses, illustrated here in excerpts from The Parable of the Burning House (“we should cultivate the art of non-tolerance”), Some Stories about Herr Kauner (“there is only one way to fight authority...outlive it”), To the Next Generation (“pay evil back with good...that is what wisdom is”) and Bad Times (“the revolt will be made by people who happen to be there”). There is also a (too-lengthy) scene from A Jewish Wife about saying goodbye to oblivious friends and family in which Brecht echoed a familiar Orwellian theme (from Animal Farm) that is particularly relevant today: “there are worthy people and less worthy people”. Equally chilling, from Arturo Ui: “If you could learn to look instead of gawking, you'd see the horror in the heart of farce...though the world stood up and stopped the bastard (Hitler), the bitch that bore him is in heat again”. And some solace in the Song of the Moldau: “the great won't stay great long; the small won't stay small...the night has twelve hours, then comes the day”.

It would have been easy (and disastrous) to present this piece with a wink-wink, nudge-nudge approach that would have diminished its power by overdoing the obvious. Wisely, Director Petosa and his cast of four have held true to Brecht's view that “art is not a mirror held up to reality, but a hammer with which to shape it”, and his adjunct belief: “In the dark times, will there also be singing? Yes, there will also be singing. About the dark times.” Brecht, as mentioned in the program notes for the revue, felt that illusion is successful when partial, meaning it becomes recognizable as an illusion and, by revealing the elements of the stage and keeping actors slightly removed from their characters, creates Verfremdungseffekt , usually translated as an alienation effect, but perhaps better as “distancing effect”. The audience would lose their perspective if they were to completely suspend belief in the theatre, hence this production's breaking of the fourth wall and in-your-face acknowledgment of needing more lighting for a scene. Brecht's work is nothing if not a didactic polemic, but it's a good deal more than that in the capable hands of the Mature Woman (Christine Hamel), Mature Man (Brad Daniel Peloquin), Young Woman (Carla Martinez) and Young Man (Jake Murphy). Each gets her or his turn to shine in the spotlight. As do the Music Direction and piano accompaniment by Matthew Stern, simple Scenic Design by Ryan Bates, appropriately tattered Costume Design by Alyssa Korol and striking Lighting Design by Bridget K. Doyle.

This production will challenge theatergoers, in refreshing their memories of past encounters with Brecht, with the stark realization that, as Santayana warned, those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. One of the countless roles of theater is the motivation not to repeal and replace that which is artful, but to rejuvenate and restore it. Brecht on Brecht is a timely and timeless reminder of why theater exists and persists.