Chanhassen Dinner Theatre is currently celebrating their 50th season and will be taking the state of Minnesota by storm this summer with their sublime production of Disney's Newsies. I'm one of the few theatre people out there who hadn't seen the musical yet. I have never seen the original musical, which recently had a filmed version in theaters for a limited time. I haven't even seen the original 1992 movie starring Christian Bale. So needless to say, I was in for a treat when I was invited to review Chanhassen's production.
Newsies is a musical that first aired on Broadway in 2012. This electrifying musical is inspired by the real-life events of the Newsboys Strike of 1899. It takes place in New York City where a group of Newsies try to start a revolution after the New York World publisher, Joseph Pulitzer, raises the prices of the newspaper to maximize his profits. However this move ends up jeopardizing many of the Newsies work to sell the papers. Jack Kelly, known as the leader and almost father/big brother figure to many of the newsies, leads the charge in declaring a protest and strike against the publishing giant. Soon Jack realizes it's going to take more than just his group of friends but the newsies all across the state of New York to take on the publishing company.
First of all, the musical is splendid. The writing is catchy, inspiring and beautifully written. Honestly can you even go wrong with anything written by Alan Menken (The Little Mermaid, Sister Act, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin)? One of the very first songs starts with exhilarating group dance number with one of the catchiest songs in the production, "Carry the Banner." The song really does set the mode for the night with the determined group of young men (and women too! Yes women were newsies too) committed to selling as many "papes" as they can. The sheer volume that this cast reaches is literal music to my ears. They sounded phenomenal.
This cast really threw down the gauntlet this summer for musicals across the Twin Cities. The choreography was single handily the best I have ever seen. Yes that includes traveling Broadway casts. Despite the size of the stage compared to some other theaters, choreographer Tamara Kangas Erickson brilliantly composes group numbers that look clean, concise and consistent. After the opening number dance, I thought "Can it even get better?" and it did. Again...and again...and again.
That being said, a choreographer is only as good as the actors she or he works with. This ensemble is everything that is right with Twin Cities theatre. They prove that the theatre scene here is thriving, bustling and shows how spoiled we are to witness it. Aleks Knezevich plays Jack Kelly and is so charming I almost fell out of my seat. He's the perfect amount of charisma and almost sleazy all wrapped into one. His voice is beautiful with a stunning tone that echos through out the entire space. Kersten Rodau plays the swanky theatre owner, Medda Larkin. Her voice is classic and her belt has an almost old time Broadway flair that I absolutely fell in love with. Ruthanne Heyward plays the female lead, Katherine who is the real feminist icon of this production. Despite some wanting her to lead a life of luxury and being a socialite, she refuses by wanting to be a reporter with a career.
This show has a really important theme that I want to touch on as well. It is obvious that this story is more relevant now than it probably ever was. It's about a group of young people who see the injustice, greed and wrongs of society. Do they whine and complain about it? No. They stand up for what they believe in. They fight for what they believe in and courageously don't stop when the going gets tough.
CDT just gets it when it comes to musical theatre. They know exactly what they are doing from all aspects of performance and hospitality with the overall goal of surprising and delighting their patrons. The staging of this musical is spot on due to the real life images that are projected behind the actors at some points during the show. What I adore about CDT is the moments when the actors come into the audience. It just sort of adds that one extra special flair to the production that makes it memorable and fun.
There are plenty of chances to see this production as it runs through the end of September. This production doesn't get produced often so I highly suggest seeing it if you are debating it. Tickets can be purchased here.
*Photos by Rich Ryan Photography.