Review | Newsies: First act: terrific. Second act: not so much

Chanhassen Dinner Theatre, through Sept 29

Ruthanne Heyward and Aleks Knezevich in NEWSIES. Photo by Rich Ryan.

I must admit I had low expectations when I arrived for opening night of Newsies, the Broadway Musical at the Chanhassen Dinner Theatre. When our waiter took our orders and told us that in the seven years he’s been at CDT this is his favorite show I still remained skeptical.

Before coming I did some homework. I watched some parts of both the original Newsies, the 1992 Disney movie (a box office flop), and the filmed version of the stage musical that Disney opened on Broadway four years ago (a smash hit). They didn’t do much for me. Prettied-up productions, complete with singing, dancing and romance didn’t do justice to the true story of the half-starved street kids who hawked newspapers on the mean streets of New York at the turn of the previous century. The meals our waiter brought us were very good, but the play didn’t seem that tempting….Then the lights went down.

I did wish the gang of newspaper boys and a girl demonstrated a little more grime and desperation in their opening number, “Carrying the Banner.” It could use a stronger emphasis on the ironic, recurring line “It’s a fine life,” but I quickly changed my mind about the show. This production has infectious energy. From Aleks Knezevich playing the lead character Jack Kelly, to Tanner Zahn Hagen, as the little kid, Les, (Hagen shares the role with Jon-Erik Chamberlain on alternate nights.) all the way through to Michael Gruber in the bit part of Nunzio, the barber, there is not a weak link in the cast.

The first act finale “Seize the Day” pulls out all the stomps, leaps and cavorts necessary for a pulsing show stopper. Up to this point the dancing is good and the songs vibrant but the choreography by Tamara Kangas Erickson is justifiably kept to simpler punctuation steps highlighting a more realistic take on the newspaper kids’ lives. But when the street kids call a strike to protest newspaper magnate Joseph Pulitzer’s gouge of their already slim profits the stage erupts. The Broadway version of this number is too polished, and too dazzlingly overproduced for a show about poverty and spunk, not so at CDT. It’s a crackerjack piece of work and the spunk lives.

Under conductor Andrew Bourgoin the band knows how to keep from sounding like a tired lounge act in a third-rate club (which, to my ear, is what the Broadway version sounds like). At CDT the solid musicianship carries the action on stage tunefully without sloppy drums or tinny trumpet (music by Alan Menken).

Given the vibrancy of the performances, one can almost forgive the second act which remains formulaic and at times groaningly unbelievable (book by Harvey Fierstein). The love song “Something to Believe In” (lyrics by Jack Feldman) is a string of clichés. And who could believe that Jack Kelly is also an advanced artist who designs and paints backdrops for a burlesque theatre? (So why is he selling papers, you may wonder.) But the story is based on an undeniable historic event despite its embroidering of the facts. A ragged bunch of street kids in 1899 really did dare to take on the rich and powerful Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst in a two-week strike. I can’t say Newsies is the best thing I’ve seen at CDT (I confess that for me, that honor goes to A Little Night Music) but it’s a fine show, no irony intended.

Note: Chanhassen Dinner Theatre is celebrating its 50th Anniversary this year. CDT estimates that it has entertained nearly 12.5 million guests in that time. Kudos.

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