EXTRA EXTRA: “Disney’s Newsies” A Hit in the Park!
The central action in “Disney’s Newsies” of an organized labor strike by children is a pretty powerful, provocative metaphor and when embodied by 40 of the finest Capital Region High School youngsters on a perfect August night in front of hundreds of your neighbors on the Park Playhouse Stage it just may bring a tear to your eye at what Capital Region theater is, how far it’s come and how much it could accomplish in the future. It also goes a long way to explaining this story’s enduring and muscular popularity especially with children and young adults. The lines that resonated strongest with me were not from “King of New York” or “Seize the Day,” the show’s two great breakout hits but from the quiet moment of reconciliation, tenderly played by Jake Goodman and Annabelle Duffy, our two young lovers, when they say “I have something to believe in/Now that I know you believe in me.”
The stage musical is based on the 1992 movie musical of the same name which was initially a horrible box-office bomb but gained a cult following on video. It takes as its jumping-off point the 1899 newsboys strike which had the city’s newsboys (vagrants, orphans and petty criminals in the musical) band together and strike against the newspapers when the media titans Hearst & Pulitzer raised the wholesale cost of the papers to the children forcing them to sell more to make the same wage. In the musical, Jack Kelly (the astonishing Jake Goodman) organizes the boys and enlists the help of children across the city to stand up for better working and living conditions. Harvey Fierstein was brought in to write the book and get a couple of laughs a page which he does effortlessly but he also shapes a compelling narrative that moves swiftly. The music is by Alan Menken and lyrics by Jack Feldman.
This production is superbly directed by Tim Nelson who keeps the action non-stop and varied and uses the scaffold structure and revolve from “In the Heights” (designed by Timothy Clow) most effectively. It’s a really great piece of stage machinery and fits this story well. Music direction is by Brian Axford and he does a great job with his eight-piece band handling Menken’s varied score with aplomb. Thanks to Sound Designer Tommy Rosati for a clear, great-sounding show. Choreographer Ashley-Simone Kirchner does a fantastic job with her charges. There are obviously exceptionally talented dancers which are utilized well in the tap numbers and acrobatics. It is a particular accomplishment working around this large set-piece which also limits the downstage area. The entire company acquits itself well in the large group dance scenes especially “King of New York” and these are some of the most stirring moments in the show. J.J. Razzano was a particular audience favorite with countless gravity-defying back-flips.
The cast overwhelms the stage in the big numbers and they are all worthy of individual praise but I regretfully can only single out a few.
Jake Goodman in the lead role of Jack Kelly is remarkable. He easily carries the show and inspires your trust and admiration from the opening moments of “Santa Fe” where he’s confiding his dreams of escape to his best friend Crutchie (a touching Jon Maltz) whom he’s sworn to protect. There is a catch in his voice that is half laughing, half lamenting as he yearns for the unobtainable “Me, I’m dying to get away.” All night you watch the conflict play out in this young performer and everything’s accessible to him-swagger, great humor, defiance and real tenderness.
Annabelle Duffy as his love interest, an intrepid reporter Katherine who puts the newsies on the front page is a worthy foil for Jack and shines in her own right on “Watch What Happens.” Duffy is lit from within when she’s singing, communicates more naturally, powerfully and concisely in a song than others who need pages of dialogue to achieve the same.
Jake Lehning as Joseph Pulitzer relishes his stage time and makes the most of his villainous opposition to the children. He is whip-smart, has great variety in his tactics and is having the time of his life as the heavy of the piece. Hayden Chenette as Davy grows in stature throughout the night and you can see him gain power in front of your eyes with “Seize the Day.” Playing his younger brother Les, Michael Jantson is a shameless scene-stealer, appropriately so. Luca Verner gives Medda Larkin a warm, seen it all, generosity. Claire Flynn (who will be taking over the role of Katherine 8/20-8/24) employs her braying borough dialect to great effect.
I would walk the line with these youngsters any day of the week and I am so grateful that they get the opportunity from Park Playhouse to play in front of thousands of people free and grow with every show. I’m very eager to watch what happens with all of them and I’m reserving my tickets to SLOC’s “Mary Poppins” featuring Claire Flynn and Jake Goodman very soon.
Runs thru 8/24
Reserved Tickets: www.parkplayhouse.com, 518-434-2035.
Free seating in the amphitheater.