Regional Reviews: Chicago
The Marriott's in-the-round configuration forces a rethinking of the staging, to be sure. The original set design by Tobin Osta grid of cubes representing tenement apartments in New York City circa 1899would be impractical in the round. Instead, Kevin Depinet uses a scheme of four steel-looking girders that descend from the flies above the round stage. When hanging above and parallel to the stage, they suggest building structures; when hanging at an angle they suggest roofs; lying flat on the stage, they're platforms. We do lose some of the sense of height the original production gave us, but director-choreographer Alex Sanchez uses the round space to offer a sense of space and immerse us in the newsies' world. His 29-person cast fills the stage in the big dance numbers. In key moments, the cast spills out in the aisles to suggest locations around New York City beyond the lower east side of Manhattan where the major newsboys live.
The in-the-round staging also works especially well in the dance numbersit's just as impressive to see this young, mostly Equity ensemble work their moves from front, back or sides as it is to see the boys face-forward in a traditional proscenium staging. Sanchez's dances aren't tap-heavy as was Christopher Gattelli's original choreography. Instead, Sanchez' steps are more balletic and gymnastic, but equally stunning and executed with the same precision we saw from the dancers of the tour. The Marriott's dancers include two women, by the waynot historically accurate, I don't suppose, but dressed in overalls and suspenders, Tiffany Tatreau and Laura Savage fit right in with the boys and have a few solo moments that impress. The round staging also puts the audience closer to the actors and makes it easier for the audience to connect with them as characters rather than interchangeable members of a chorus.
Another distinction of this production is Sanchez' take on the lead character Jack Kelly. While the New York production offered actors with matinee idol looks and grooming that was easy on the eyes but didn't necessarily serve the character, this Newsies has allowed its stunningly effective leading man, Patrick Rooney, to sport a scruffier look. Rooney is more of an "angel with a dirty face," carrying long, not entirely quaffed hair and wearing grungier clothes. The look complements Rooney's sensitive portrayal of his nearly beaten-down character and draws us in to truly empathize with the kid. With Newsies, Rooney adds another knockout leading role to his earlier efforts in Marriott's Spring Awakening and Theo Ubique's Rent. He shows his triple-threat bona fides here.
There's also an exceptional performance by Kevin Gudahl as the villainous Joseph Pulitzer, the newspaper publisher who prompts the newsboy strike by raising the price the boys pay for the papers. A veteran of classical theater as comfortable with the Bard as with Broadway, Gudahl gives us fully a villainous yet believable non-mustache twirling nemesis. He sings the heck out of his two musical numbers as well.
Though it deals with poverty, child abuse, and class conflict, Newsies is nonetheless a feel-good musical. Alan Menken and Jack Feldman's songs include the joyous "Carrying the Banner," the anthemic "Seize the Day," and the charming "King of New York" as well as the very Menken/Disney-ish ballads "Santa Fe" and "Something to Believe In." These songs all provoke visceral good feelings, and Harvey Fierstein's book has lots of his trademark one-liners, even though there's not a drag queen anywhere in sight (as there was in his La Cage aux Folles and Kinky Boots). And the underdogs winthe bad guys are either punished or change for the better as we learn the power of taking a stand for justice against the odds.
Whether Newsies has the staying power to become a standard may depend on the ability of organizations like schools and community groups to find young performers who can dance the way this ensemble dances. But as Mr. Sanchez and this cast have shown us, the dancers won't all have to be boys.
Newsies will play the Marriott Theatre, 10 Marriott Drive, Lincolnshire IL, through December 31, 2017. Visit www.MarriottTheatre.com or call 847-634-0200 for more information.