The Ultimate Word

"The ultimate Word is not a paragraph but a person. If Jesus is the Word of God incarnate, then the heart of proclamation is personal and relational, not propositional."

Marjorie Hewitt Suchocki * God, Christ, Church, page 135

Monday, April 02, 2012

FCS: Newsies


Quick facts:
  • Show: Newsies
  • Broadway
  • Date: Sunday, April 1, 2012
  • Time: 6:30 p.m.
  • Closing date: August 19, 2012 (though I expect another extension)
  • Venue: Nederlander Theatre
  • Running time: 2:30 (one intermission)
  • My seat: Amazing! Second row from the stage, near center
  • Ticket source: Ticketmaster through newsiesthemusical.com
  • Understudies: Jack Scott (as Finch) in for Aaron J. Albano.  (Not an understudy, but the alternating role of Les was played by Lewis Grosso at tonight's performance)
Know someone working the show? No.  I do have a friend who works in an administrative capacity at the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn, NJ, where Newsies premiered, but he is not involved in the creative aspects of the show and is not related to this production.

Synopsis: In the summer of 1899, New York City newsboys go on strike in protest of unfair labor practices at a newspaper owned by Joseph Pulitzer.

My thoughts:  Perhaps I need to just go ahead and admit that I'm something of a snob.  When I had this thought after the Paper Mill Playhouse production I was afraid to admit it.  I mean, how can a regional theater production in little Millburn, New Jersey have produced the greatest night of theater I've ever experienced?  Even though I could barely contain my excitement at the time, I found myself constantly hedging: "It was very nearly the best show I've ever seen."  But now that it's made its way to Broadway I can say it - full throated, and with no qualifications - Newsies is the best show I've ever seen.

I had heard that the creative team had really punched up the show in some striking ways to mark their transition to Broadway.  Though I found it hard to imagine how it could possibly have been true, it was.  Capathia Jenkins, in the role of Medda Larkin, is one striking upgrade from Millburn.  Not only does she add some much needed diversity to the cast, Jenkins is a force on the stage.  She swaggers with a Queen Latifah-style beauty and confidence, she can out-sing anyone in the cast, and she gives her character a depth and grittiness that had been absent before.  Additionally, Kara Lindsay, in the role of Katherine, seems to have grown since I saw her in October.  Her connection with her character, and by association with the audience, seems to have deepened in lovely ways.  Literally my ONLY criticism of the show is that she could stand to play a tad more to the back of the house.  Being on the second row, I caught the subtleties of her eyes and gestures, but I wondered how the folks further away might have felt.  She is a tad too "Disney" for my tastes, but even so, she is brilliant in the role, and in no way a burden on the show.

In all of the technical areas that I tend to consider, the show was flawless.  It's hard to imagine how creative design can be so perfect in every way.  Even down to the changes between scenes - I never noticed the shifts.  Every transition was flawless, to the degree that I was often caught unaware by looking up and noticing that we were in a different place or time.

The lighting design by Jeff Croiter was subtle and textured.  The color palettes were varied and helped to tell the story - there was never any confusion about the time of day or the mood being established.

The projections, designed by the ever-brilliant Sven Ortel are - in a word - perfect.  Even when moving and shifting and being drawn before our eyes, they never grabbed our attention from where it was supposed to be.  They were tasteful: always enough, and never too much.  Even from the beginning - as the projections were serving as curtain - I noticed the subtle details of Ortel's work.  The pictures that made up that image were detailed by the barely visible effect of crumpled newspaper.  Olsen was quietly setting the stage even before most of the audience had begun to notice.  One technical aspect of the projections that amazed me the last time I saw the show, and continued to this time, was how the images - projected on nine different scrims that raised and lowered independently - would seamlessly follow the raising and lowering without spilling off below.  From the perspective of the audience, it might have seemed like magic, but I knew it was the fruits of tedious work and meticulous attention to detail.  This is why I've quickly become a fan of his work!

The set, designed by Tobin Ost, appears deceptively simple, but has the ability to shift and change in such a multitude of ways that it can create a countless array of locations.  It has stage-filling levels (and I mean levels!), angles, movement...  It really is the perfect set - so flexible that I can almost imagine how this same set might have been used on any number of other shows.  At one point in the second act ("Seize the Day", scene 6, I believe) the three columns in a line moved downstage with newsboys singing on every platform.  The audience erupted in spontaneous applause.  The music was not particularly climactic at that point of the song, and I'm confident - whether they consciously knew it or not - that the applause was for the set.  I've never seen anything like it.

There are simply too many aspects of this show that deserve accolades, but the greatest among them MUST be the choreography, by Christopher Gattelli.  The dancers' physical abilities consistently astonished me - the choreography is more intense and demanding than anything I could have imagined, and certainly more than anything I've ever seen.  It was amazing how much time these dancers spent in the air.  At one point, I laughed to myself remembering how interesting it was to read in the Spider Man: Turn Off the Dark Playbill that they had a "flight director" to coordinate all of the scenes that happen as the characters fly throughout the theater.  I found myself joking that perhaps Newsies should have had a "flight director", too!  But, as amazed as I am at the guys' abilities in doing it, I'm equally amazed at Gattelli's daring in asking it of them.  He is a visionary, and I can't wait to pay attention to his work in the future.

Rising out of Gattelli's work are a few rising stars that we are sure to see more from in the future.  I've heard it quipped that Newsies makes the case for the need for a "Best Ensemble" TONY award, and I couldn't agree more - at least for this year!  Ryan Breslin (also in the role of Race) is a thrilling actor.  Garett Hawe (also playing Albert and Bill) demands attention whenever he enters the stage.  An unlikely one for this category is Andy Richardson.  My guess is that he is overlooked by some, but he's an intensely talented dancer - enough so to effectively stand out for me in this armada of talent - and he cleverly delivered some of the best one-liners of the show.

I won't bore you with lots of attention to the talent dripping from every pore of Jeremy Jordan - he is Broadway's "it-boy" of today and countless people are gushing over him - and rightfully so!  Just know that I join the chorus.  Instead, I'd rather draw attention to the brightest rising star in the ensemble, Ryan Steele (also in the role of Specs - or for anyone who's seen any trailers of the production - "that amazing guy who spins longer than the laws of physics allow while standing on a piece of newspaper").  He is simply amazing.  And almost too talented for an ensemble.  Though he didn't have any standout solo singing that I recall, if his voice can even remotely keep up with the rest of his talent, I strongly suspect that his next role will be a lead.  If it's not, he needs a new agent!

One of the interesting things about Newsies is how it seems to be infiltrating popular culture.  I keep hearing people refer to what we used to call "cabby" caps as "newsy" caps.  And moreover, I keep seeing them popping up all over town - not just in the line to the theater!  But it makes sense that this show would find it's way into wider cultural applications.  Throughout the show I laughed from the bottom of my seat, I was not infrequently teary, and I leaped to my feet in fits of screams and applause as soon as it ended.  And, though I'm a trained singer, and I know how to use my diaphragm to produce large sounds when necessary, even so, I screamed through my cheers so much and for so long tonight that I found myself feeling hoarse on the ride home!

But Newsies isn't just about top-notch production values and some of the best singing and dancing there is.  Even though it's based on an old movie that's based on an even older historic event, it remains timely and relevant.  Stories of heads of corporations and the wealthy trying to squash workers' rights and unions continue to litter the background of our current political landscape.  So the story of these unlikely heroes rising up against all odds needs to be told now as much as ever.  And even if our current political climate weren't as it is, stories of the unlikely and powerless masses rising up against their oppressors will always be important to hear, to recite, and to celebrate!

Closing arguments:
  • Would I see it again? There aren't many shows that I'm willing to pay full price to see.  This is one of the very few.  And I will again.
  • Would I recommend it to others? If so, who? Absolutely, and the list is too long to populate on here.  But anyone who loves a good old-fashioned singing and dancing musical will think this is heaven.  Anyone who wants to leave the theater humming the tunes and tapping their feet won't be disappointed.  In reality, I can't think of anyone who wouldn't at least enjoy themselves.
  • Twitter review: Perfection all over again.  I can't wait to see it again!

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