Tag Archives: Harvey Fierstein

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.

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Kinky Catfight in the Catskills

Theatre Review: Casa Valentina

 Casa Valentina

By Perry Tannenbaum

The cool Catskill Mountains have long served as cities of refuge for young and old New Yorkers. Escaping the summer heat, families might settle in for a few weeks at bungalow colonies, letting the kids run wild until dusk. Or parents might breathe easier back in the city, sending their schoolkids off to the many summer camps that dotted the hills. What set the Catskills apart from similar getaway locales was the storied Borscht Belt, where big names such as Jerry Lewis, Woody Allen, and Duke Ellington performed at venues that didn’t pretend to be Venice or the Pyramids.

By a quirk of history, Harvey Fierstein’s sad paean to the escapist wickedness of the Catskills, Casa Valentina, opened on Broadway a scant three weeks before the last great bastion of Catskills chic, the Kutcher’s hotel and resort, closed down during the spring of 2014. Even the pugnacious New York Daily News rent its garments, declaring, “It’s time to sit shiva for the old Borscht Belt.” Somewhere among my photo albums, an old shot I took of my parents rubbing elbows with Howard Da Silva at Kutcher’s gained more sentimental value.

The demise of the Borscht Belt during the run of Valentina also intensified the soft showbiz glow Fierstein has sprinkled upon the Chevalier d’Eon, a foundering Catskills enterprise run by Rita and George Vaccaro. Their bungalow colony caters exclusively to male transvestites seeking to escape their wives’ surveillance and release their inner Ethel Mermans.

Business is not as usual as the action begins at Spirit Square in the current Queen City Theatre Company remount directed by Glenn T. Griffin. George returns from the post office, where he was grilled for hours about an intercepted manila envelope, teeming with child pornography, addressed to his establishment. Back at the main house, two newcomers will check in that very day.

The first of these is the subtlest of Fierstein’s artifices, Jonathan, who seems to have little more experience in the art of cross-dressing than stealthily fingering his wife’s wardrobe. There’s little more in his pathetic suitcase than a humdrum dress and a sorrier wig. So George and Rita must introduce all the regular guests to Jonathan, a great convenience for us. More importantly, most of these regulars flutter excitedly around Jonathan, teaching him the fundamentals of femininity, demonstrating their hospitality and humanity.

Perhaps the most formal of Jonathan’s initiation rites is the taking of a woman’s name. He chooses the most Shakespearean name in the gang, Miranda. Of course, it’s George who sports the most flamboyant handle, Valentina. He’s also the most eager to entertain his guests. If he’s going to dress up like a nightclub chanteuse, he’s going to be one. He has no trouble enticing some of the other girls to join him in the merry role-playing. Look out for some sassy lip-syncing.

You’ll find some interesting contrasts between this risqué place and Fierstein’s more famous club, La Cage aux Folles. Although Albin is the celebrated Zaza, his partner Georges out on the Riviera hasn’t given himself a female name. Nor does the threat to the Chevalier d’Eon come from some pompous political ass outside the transvestite culture hoping to ride the wave of a moral crusade. No, the most devastating threats here come from within, so the prevailing tone grows sinister and dramatic rather than lighthearted and farcical.

Our other newcomer comes with an agenda, determined to stir up a ruckus. Charlotte runs a magazine for transvestites and, as publisher of Valentina’s writing, has some leverage as well. He wants Valentina’s circle to organize under a charter, and he wants one of basic tenets to differentiate all members from the beasts, emphatically declaring that transvestites are not homosexuals. It’s the first question he’s always asked on speaking tours, and he wants it to stop.

Talk about a party pooper. Obviously, Zaza never got Charlotte’s memo or he would have turned in his tiara long ago. Charlotte is relying on Valentina to help him overcome whatever resistance his clientele might voice. But George proves to be a more squeamish diva than Albin, unable to declare “I Am What I Am” because he’s not sure what that is. Compounding tensions, the whole crisis has Rita wondering whom she married, George or Valentina?

Casa Valentina

Griffin and his cast must navigate some murky waters here – and they only grow deeper as we move along. Fortunately, our anchors are strong with Berry Newkirk as Jonathan/Miranda wading into the culture for the first time and Barbi Van Schaick as Rita, helping George – and all of us – process the implications of the shifting currents. Newkirk is nervous and delicate, beautifully intimidated by his elders, the final aura that ennobles them. Van Schaick, on the other hand, is downtrodden and despairing in the face of all the weighty life lessons she has learned, determined to stay the course even though it’s unlikely she and her spouse will ever reach the light.

Joe Rux as Isadore/Charlotte and Matthew Corbett as The Judge/Amy generate the most intense hostilities, one more devious and unprincipled than the other. We probably hate Rux far more because of Charlotte’s bullying and homophobia, but Corbett is no less destructive, a massive oil spill of moral and physical weakness, all the more repugnant from a judge.

You may recall Matt Kenyon as the starstruck servant in the excellent Theatre Charlotte production of La Cage last fall. The telltale giggle is still there as Kenyon transitions to the more substantial role of Albert/Bessie, glad to become a bubbly Miss Congeniality in bringing Miranda along. He’s reliably comical purveying Bessie’s flamboyant vanity, yet he doesn’t shrivel when Charlotte shows up. More in the background are Steven Martin as Michael/Gloria and Christopher Jones as Theodore/Terry. Shiny costumes by Jamey Varnadore help them project some of the most formidable style and poise.

The riddle of how to make Kristian Alexander Wedolowski glamorous as Valentina remains unsolved by Varnadore. Wedolowski is a handsome enough man as George, but the bright red wig selected for his Valentina transforms him into a nightmare Little Lulu. But glamor isn’t the point at the heart of all this turmoil. It’s the stresses threatening Valentina’s livelihood, his marriage, and the circle he has drawn around him as his audience and support group. The ultra-neat absurdity of Wedolowski’s appearance, somehow crumbling in both of his gender guises, helps him to project both George and Valentina’s confusion.

Named after a famed and gender-ambiguous French spy of the 18th century, there really was a Chevalier d’Eon up in the Catskills, where New York professionals dolled up in secret, until it became known as Casa Susanna. The owners were Tito Valenti and his wife Marie. They weren’t very different at all from Fierstein’s Vaccaros. Marie did operate a wig store, Tito did write for the daring Transvestia, and the couple prided themselves on schooling neophytes.

Virginia Prince (née Arnold Lowman), Charlotte’s real-life counterpart, closed down Transvestia in 1979, nine years after Susanna’s last column for the magazine. Both Susanna and Virginia eventually made up their minds, finishing their lives as women. “I invented gender,” Virginia boasted to the New York Times in 2006, less than two years before she died at the age of 96.