Daily Archives: July 22, 2018

Earthbound “Newsies” Charms With Punk Hero and Youthful Fervor

Review: Newsies The Musical

By Perry Tannenbaum

It wasn’t long after music director Drina Keen cued the opening bars of Newsies that I already knew. This Disney musical fits the CPCC Summer Theatre program like a glove. Largely fueled by singing, acting, and dancing talent fresh out of college and grad school by way of regional Southeastern Theatre Conference auditions, CP’s youthful summer company is exactly what you want for a story about underpaid New York City newsboys who dare to strike against newspaper publisher Joseph Pulitzer.

Look at the scaffolding that rises across the stage at Halton Theater, representing the tenements where the raw, gifted Jack Kelly and his fellow newsies are holed up, and you might also suspect that Robert Croghan’s set design measures up well against those of the Broadway production and the national tour. Having seen both, I can add that Croghan’s costumes and Gary Sivak’s lighting also reach those lofty levels. Differences only begin to emerge when the ensemble of paper hawkers starts to dance.

Whether constrained by the limitations of his dancers or the liability limits of CP’s insurance coverage, Ron Chisholm’s choreography doesn’t begin to compare with the high-flying exploits that brought Newsies a best choreography Tony Award in 2012. I found it illuminating to see how that shortfall reverberated through the rest of the production. Music played by the CP Orchestra seemed less vibrant behind more earthbound dancers, draining the Alan Menken score of a bit of its punch. Even the Harvey Fierstein book seemed thinner, plotlines and characters less fleshed-out.

Of course, director Tom Hollis hasn’t trimmed the script, so I’d presume that first-timers may be surprised to discover how mature this Disney product truly is. Sure, the history of the 1899 strike has been tidied up and moved to Manhattan, while the financials are fudged to amp up the drama. Kelly has been installed as the single organizer and leader while Katherine, modeled on an actual newsperson who backed the strike, has been extensively re-engineered, predictably becoming Jack’s love interest.

Jack gets a Jewish newbie named Morris as a sidekick who handles the practicalities of organizing and publicizing the strike, another vague nod toward history; and up in his office, Pulitzer does entice Jack to recant his strike support with a tempting offer. Teddy Roosevelt, then Governor of New York, makes a couple of cameo appearances, adding extra period flavoring, though not nearly as crucial as cousin Franklin was in Annie.

Other factors come into play that could deflect Jack from plunging into full-bore labor agitation. At the top of the show, he and his crippled crony stand on top of their roof, mooning over an escape from the tenements to a cleaner life in “Santa Fe.” Later on, the police raid a newsie gathering and haul Crutchie (what else does a city kid call a crippled crony?) off to jail. Jack feels responsible – and he’s on the lam from the cops himself.

Above all else, our Jack has talent. He could become a visual artist or, more to the point, an illustrator at the newspaper he’s been selling all this time. Jack’s artistic aptitude and the introduction of Katherine are the chief alterations Fierstein makes to the 1992 screenplay by Bob Tzudiker and Noni White. You may shake your head a bit at the end after watching Jack take advantage of both of these exciting opportunities. He’s still waltzing off into the sunset as a newsboy.

With awesome gravity-defying dancing in the jubilant Newsies package, you might easily ignore this gauche resolution, but at Halton Theater, we must fall back on the excellence of Ashton Guthrie as Jack. C’mon, this is all about Jack, isn’t it? Happily, Guthrie delivers. I’ve been watching Guthrie on local stages since high school when he was the evil Zoser in Aïda (from Disney to Disney, right?), and I greeted him back then in 2009 as a triple threat to watch – and keep in Charlotte.

His command of all those skills is fuller now, and the professional polish of his Jack is a constant joy to behold whether he’s speaking, singing, dancing, or simply listening to others onstage. Smoothly, he combines the poise of a natural leader with the roughness of the streets, stirring in the rebellious hormones of a teen. Familiar with much of his past work, I had to chuckle a bit at his pugnacious punk mannerisms.

The elders are so good in this cast that I have to cite them as being the other key reasons why this CP production so enjoyable. Hollis gives every one of these vets free license to give performances that are a wee bit outsized. As Pulitzer, we find that Rob Addison adds a pinch of melodramatic villainy to the brass tacks businessman, and springing off Mount Rushmore as Teddy Roosevelt, Craig Estep adds a Jerry Colonna twinkle to the Rough Rider’s vitality.

Presiding over the newsies’ hangouts, Brittany Harrison and Jonathan Buckner bring us some Big Apple diversity, Harrison as a diva nightclub hostess and Buckner as a deli owner who opens his doors to the boys even when they’re nigh broke from striking. Among the newsie gang, only two pairs of brothers really stand apart to leave as much of an impression as Treston Henderson’s Crutchie. Jalen Walker is just slightly nerdy as Morris Delancey and Patrick Stepp is precociously adorable as little brother Oscar. Collin Newton and Alex Kim are the other bros, Jack’s most enthusiastic boosters and the staunchest militants in his roused rabble.

Looking quite serene and elegant in her prim business attire, Robin Dunavant does get to sketch out a modest storyline of her own, trying to prove that women can be serious journalists long before the suffrage movement prevailed. She’s cool to Jack’s advances at first. Only when she realizes that this déclassé Jack is an upstart labor agitator does she see him as a stepping stone toward professional respectability. And we eventually learn that Katherine isn’t a nobody from nowhere. So that’s why Fierstein has added on Jack’s talents! To justify her affections.

Whatever the right degree of warming up to Jack is required, Dunavant reaches it demurely. She could have turned up the heat a little without endangering Guthrie’s dominance, but this will do.

“Appropriate” Sports Multiple Meanings and Graveyards

Review:  Three Bone Theatre’s Appropriate

By Perry Tannnenbaum

Two graveyards flank the Lafayette home in southeast Arkansas, dating back to its antebellum plantation days. One of these cemeteries preserves the remains of the former owners’ family and the other, receiving less upkeep perhaps, the bones of their slaves. Yet it seems, as we become more and more familiar with the Lafayette siblings in Branden Jacob-Jenkins’ Appropriate, that there are also – figuratively, anyway – at least two more graveyards inside the home. And a malevolent ghost.

As the sibs gather at the old homestead, poring over their dad’s possessions a few months after the funeral, prepping the place for a scheduled auction and liquidation, it’s obvious that the home is a graveyard for blurred childhood memories that don’t align with each other. Old grudges and animosities rise freshly out of their tombs. Just as dramatically, there are damning objects buried among Dad’s salable possessions.

He could have been a virulent segregationist, a KKK member, or even part of organized lynch mobs. Or he could have merely been a collector of such grisly artifacts. Or they may have simply come down unnoticed from the original plantation owners.

Ambiguities abound, and in the Three Bone Theatre production now at Spirit Square, they aren’t shying away from the confusion. If anything, these tantalizing uncertainties are sharpened by director Sarah Provencal and her cast. On the title page of the playbill, definitions for “ap•pro•pri•ate” are offered for both the adjective and the verb, inviting us to be unsure about even how to pronounce the name of what we’re watching.

Thanks largely to Rachael, “Bo” Lafayette’s annoying and judgmental Yankee wife, and Franz his black sheep younger brother, we’re scrutinizing the inheriting generation as much as the deceased. Is the elder sister, Toni, showing her racist colors when she denies knowing of any evidence of Daddy’s bigotry? Or how about when she presumes that River, Franz’s fiancée, is Native American on the basis of her braided hair? Does it count as denial that Bo has been oblivious to the second cemetery outside?

Thanks again to Rachael’s stridency, we also occasionally wonder, as we sit watching this venal spectacle, whether we ourselves are too quick to judge, victims of our own prejudices. Certainly that is a strong component of Jacob-Jenkins’ intent. After we reach preliminary conclusions, we may have to recalibrate when we discover that more than a couple of these people are capable of keen reflection and insight.

What fascinated me even more was what none of the lively folks onstage perceived, for amid the squabbles, the stressing, the venting, the scheming, and the violence, Jacob-Jenkins is exploring what makes families tick or malfunction. The easiest part of all this to convey is the diverging narratives we build from different perspectives – as basic as I-was-there-and-you-weren’t in some cases – and from simple misperceptions, sometimes as simple as taking our eyes off the ball. Or a photo album.

These differences can explode. But more subtly, we can fail to communicate – or screw up when we try.

That’s why it’s tough for me to choose among the three most stellar – and introspective – performances currently on view at Duke Energy Playhouse. For sheer octane and horsepower, nobody surpasses Becca Worthington as Toni for keeping hostilities blazing hot. Toni hates everybody for leaving all the caretaking and dirty work to her (a staple gripe in family sagas like these), but despite all the venom she spews at everyone in sight, she’d like somebody to love her. Quite funny if you think about it, because Toni doesn’t come off as anybody’s doormat.

On the other hand, Leslie Giles actually seems to believe she’s in a comedy as Rachael, jarringly shrill in her perpetual alarm, taking offense so readily that she eventually earns it, and parenting as if every moment were a dire emergency. Things don’t go well between the chronically caustic Toni and the high-strung Rachael. You’ll strain to determine who’s more in the wrong – or more sincere in her self-loathing.

Of the two brothers, I find Franz far more significant, textured, and engaging than Bo. Yet you’ll see that Dan Grogan has plenty to chew on as Bo, trying to fix his siblings’ messes and get the maximum return on the family estate while maintaining peace with his virago wife. He treads fine lines with his steamrolling missus, who feels she has been targeted for anti-Semitic bias by Toni’s precious dad. Bo strives to prevent the inevitable explosions when Rachael pushes her sister-in-law’s limited patience too far. We probably dislike Grogan most for seeming so pragmatic, grounded, and occasionally spineless.

Home after many years of being on the road and out of touch, showing up months after Dad’s funeral just in time for the auction – with a youthful New Age fiancée on his arm who adores him – Franz is the object of suspicion, resentment, and envy. So why did I find myself liking him in spite of his past as a sexual predator? I guess I was as captivated as River was by his mellow, slightly dopey earnestness.

What drills down to the essence of Jacob-Jenkins’ dissection of family life are Franz’s repeated efforts at meaningful communication. Ignoring his sibs’ suspicions, Franz tells the family that he has come home to apologize to them, not completely sure he believes it himself. But he makes a big deal out it, clumsily reading a handwritten apology that is more than a cursory couple of sentences. Tim Hager gets the awkwardness of this man down to the bone, trying to believe he has finally turned the corner to personal redemption. Even more pathetic are Franz’s incoherent efforts to mentor his nephew Rhys – at a vulnerable moment when it might be more prudent to just leave the embarrassed teen alone.

Maybe well-meaning inarticulateness is Franz’s true inheritance from his father and the true reason why his life has so frequently jumped the rails. Very American, this Franz. We’ve had a couple of inarticulate presidents during this blundering century, one of them fairly likable. Hasn’t worked out so well.

The younger Appropriate generation does seem to include River, and all four of them seem to offer us rays of hope. Despite her hippy-dippy spiritualism, Joy White doesn’t gloss over River’s inclination to look after Franz’s financial interests, becoming a rounder, savvier adventuress than we first surmise. There’s a modicum of chemistry between Sean Riehm as Rhys and Siri Patterson as his cousin Cassie, Rachael’s daughter. Clearly, the teens’ parents worry about them more than is necessary. Jamey Helm completes the cast as Cassie’s younger brother, not so much bratty as speedy. His darting sprints from one end of the stage to the other heighten the overall sense of turmoil, clutter, and chaos.

You may be troubled by this Three Bone production, but you won’t be bored. Special perk: Jacob-Jenkins devises a stunning way to end a family brawl.