Regional Reviews: Florida - West Coast
Newsies began life as a live action movie in 1993, one of the biggest bombs ever to launch from the home of Mickey and Minnie. Surprisingly, the video release was not scrapped and after a period, the movie began to develop a cult following, mostly young boys, which turned it into a minor hit. The musical version with music by Alan Menken, lyrics by Jack Feldman, and book by Harvey Fierstein first hit the boards at New Jersey's Paper Mill Playhouse in 2011 with a transfer to Broadway in 2012, an announced limited engagement that was extended due to its success. The key ingredients for its success were director Jeff Calhoun and choreographer Christopher Gattelli. I find the musical lacking an emotional core to draw me in, the relationships between the characters seem trivial, and the songs are not Menken's best work. Producing Artistic Director Rick Kerby makes up for all that is not right by offering a production that contains the best dancing I have ever seen on any community theater stage. Yes, he has cribbed his choreography from the Broadway version, but this is what Rick has done best for years, replicate creditably for the talent he has.
The star of the production is the male ensemble. Mr. Kerby has built a solid core over a number of years, and many of the names and faces return for show after show. I also like that it keeps getting more and more diverse. Most of the major dance numbers end with Todd Bellamy II and Tay Peterson tumbling from opposites sides of the stage and Joseph Rebella coming up the middle for the final super wow. Every single young man dancing makes this production what it is, but without solid material to work with, those playing principle roles are swimming upstream.
Austin Gresham, a sophomore at Boston Conservatory, makes his Manatee Performing Arts Center debut as Jack Kelly. He has a solid presence, a fine voice once he warms up, and decent dancing chops. I would love to see him in a role that gives him a real chance to show us what he has. Savannah Sinclair, also debuting at MPAC, is delightfully sweet and sassy as Katherine Plumber and steals "Something to Believe In" with her dancing. Aaron Castle as Davey Jacobs stands out for his extra crisp dancing. Cory Woomert adds another villainous character to his resume, but the writing is so thin, he can't breathe much life into Joseph Pulitzer. He proudly shares the stage with two of his progeny, Asher as Les Jacobs and Judah as Mush. Both are seasoned performers, just like their dad. (Both have essayed the role of Ralphie in different productions of A Christmas Story.) Javisha Strong warmly plays Medda Larkin, and her song "That's Rich" is a highlight.
Rick Bogner and his usual gang of five offer fine musical support, but how much can be done to enliven a dull score (except when it is being danced to)?
Rick Kerby and cast are well served by all the technical aspects. Donna Buckalter has designed the sets which move seamlessly from scene to sceneno matter that the major set piece was used last season for The Hunchback of Notre Dame. I guess it is being saved for all productions Disney. Augmented by a scrim that covers from number three (mid-stage) and serves as a screen for Jay Poppe's magnificent projections, these settings would not be out of place on any professional stage. Costumes by Matt Myers are on the same level and lighting by Joseph P. Oshry (welcome back, you've been away too long) complete the total technical triumph.
Ok, I am not enamored with Newsies, we all have our likes and dislikes. If a community theater is going to mount this show, a production on this level is the way to do it. What a great way to start a new season.
Manatee Players' Newsies, through August 26, 2018, at Manatee Center for the Performing Arts, 502 3rd Ave W., Bradenton FL. For tickets and information, call 941-748-0111 or visit manateeplayers.com.