Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Read All About It: Exuberant 'Newsies' is Really Really Good (If Not Quite "Extra! Extra!" Special) -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Oriental Theatre, Chicago
Thru Jan. 4, 2015

On Tuesday night, even with virtually every school in existence on Christmas break, hundreds of teenagers helped completely fill Chicago's cavernous Oriental Theater for a performance of the Disney musical, Newsies.

Though I wouldn't quite call it Beatlemaniacal, there was a clearly palpable sense of giddy anticipation and youthful excitement running through the balcony.

I have been to other musicals that have attracted busloads of teens--including Wicked, Billy Elliot and Spring Awakening--but all too often (although a bit less so at downtown Broadway in Chicago presentations than at suburban theaters) I find myself to be a youngster in any given theater crowd. At times by 30 years or more--and I'm 46.

Thus I frequently fret about the enduring commercial viability of the musical theater art form, say 10 or 20 years hence. Broadway itself, and big touring shows, might be okay, but some of Chicago's great regional houses & companies like Marriott Theatre Lincolnshire, Drury Lane Oakbrook, Theatre at the Center in Munster, Light Opera Works, the Paramount Theater in Aurora, etc., may have a tougher time surviving unless they start attracting younger patrons in mass.

So that the teens seemed to raucously love Newsies is far more important--even to me--than what I thought of it.

And I found it to be really terrific.

Perhaps not quite legendary, as though Alan Menken's score, with lyrics by Jack Feldman, has a number of rousing group songs, many coming straight from the 1992 movie musical of Newsies--"Carrying the Banner," "The World Will Know," "Seize The Day," "King of New York," "Once and For All"--I just didn't feel the music had the heft or depth of truly magnificent musicals, even among the best of the 21st Century.

Based around the New York newsboys strike of 1899, the ardently pro-union show--which, properly, is touring with an Actors' Equity--reminded in parts of Billy Elliot, but even though I had familiarized myself with the Broadway cast recording beforehand, I didn't find Newsies' tunes of solidarity to be quite as forceful or distinctive as those in that show, and certainly not Les Miserables.

But with a solid book by Harvey Fierstein, excellent choreography by Christopher Gattelli--I was as wowed as the teens by some of the group dance numbers and dazzling solos--and rather unique scenic design by Tobin Ost, at worst Newsies is a musical that any lover of the art form should at least like.

I was looking forward to the show more than any on my fall Broadway in Chicago slate, and I was not disappointed.

After a successful 2+ year Broadway run that ended in August, the first national tour is also helmed by director Jeff Calhoun and the narrative runs pretty seamlessly.

I did not see Newsies in New York, but in his positive review Chicago Tribune theater critic Chris Jones notes that all of the original Broadway scenery is replicated on tour, and actually fits better into the spacious and splendiferous Oriental.

And while, befitting a show about newspaper hawkers that approximate the age of the audience members who came via a yellow bus, the cast is quite young, the performances were really good throughout.

From the very top of the theater, only the four primary newsies--Jack Kelly (Dan DeLuca), Crutchie (Zachary Sayle), Davey (Jacob Kemp) and Les (Anthony Rosenthal)--truly stood out from the numerous others, and even they sometimes got lost in the crowd.

But DeLuca makes for a cool, cocky, well-sung Jack, who serves as the de facto leader of the newsies and is the focus of the show's love story--with Katherine (Stephanie Styles)--and showdown with publisher Joseph Pulitzer (Steve Blanchard), while Rosenthal is fun as spunky little Les, the little brother of brainy Davey, believably imbued by Kemp. (Rosenthal rotates in the role of Les with Vincent Crocilla.)

Even though I've never seen the movie, and somehow don't remember even knowing of it until Newsies
hit Broadway, nothing that happens in the show comes as much of a surprise.

Yet while it's not a headline-making masterpiece, Newsies is a recent musical that's better than most, terrifically performed on a first-rate tour.

With the huge teen turnout, tickets for the remainder of Newsies' seemingly all-too-brief Chicago run are somewhat sparse (and unlikely to be discounted on HotTix or Goldstar).

But while I hope that those who love musicals can get to this one, I'm genuinely thrilled that the kids are packing the joint.

And if Newsies helps lead them to Les Miz, Rent, Cabaret, Sweeney Todd, Evita, the upcoming Lyric Opera production of Carousel and much more theatrical greatness--including shows yet to come--well, that would be even more newsworthy.

And I would be all the more delighted than I was by a delectably entertaining downtown show, done right.

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