“Newsies” Delivers at Maine State Music Theater

Posted:  Saturday, August 12, 2017 - 1:30pm
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      Newsies the Musical, which opened on Thursday night at the Maine State Music Theater may well hit the history books. “Extra ! Extra! Hey look at the headlines, historical news is being made.”   Oh, wrong musical, right lead.  The show was interrupted by applause for close to four minutes after a dance number and several times more for exceptional performances. This was not polite applause. This was applause accompanied by hollering and cheers that swelled then ebbed only to swell again. It’s a sound a performer hears rarely in his performing career. Every cheer, every hoot was more than deserved.

      Directed and choreographed by Marc Robin, “Newsies” is infused with raw vitality. It’s all about the dance. There are back flips, cartwheels, flying leaps that would make Baryshnikov green with envy, somersaults, tap dancing, and pirouettes that seem airborne.

      It was a treat for this blogger to sit beside Marc Robins and Maine State Theater Artistic Director Curt Dale Clark on opening night.  Was Robin anxious about his opening night? “We worked together, everyone has put it all on the stage,” he said. It’s what we, as Directors, hope for, work for, and dream for every production. Sometimes it happens and we get to watch our heart’s desire come to life on stage.

     Robin not only brought his heart and soul to the production, he pulled off one of those theater miracles that all Directors secretly dread.  Each member of this ensemble had to be able to move, quickly, appropriately and in sync with every other dancer on that stage.  When an injury removed an actor/dancer from the opening night performance, Robin reached out. Donovan Hoffer flew in on Wednesday, was fitted for a costume, rehearsed the choreography and assumed the role of Buttons. It’s a tribute to the cast, crew, director and the actor that he fit in seamlessly.

        Briefly, the musical is inspired by the New York newsboy strike of 1899 — and brings all the power of uniting together for the common good (unionizing) into a musical form. Their faces aglow with defiance and hope, the Newsies take on the giants of the publishing industry. The specific enemy they must conquer is the press baron Joseph Pulitzer who decides to earn more by charging the newsies more for the ‘papes’ they sell.

            The story is very loosely based in fact yet this version managed to make several serious points amidst the singing and dancing.  This cast, while older than the actual newsies, gave a moving picture of the conditions of the child labor crews in turn-of-the century America. Their call to unionize was a call for social justice for all the kids who had to survive on the streets and it did have an effect.

            The musical, of course, is not meant to be deep commentary.  The romantic angle between Jack ( Matt Farcher) and Katharine ( Kate Farhner), added by the Disney conglomerate ,is believable and their duets are lovely. It’s fun to have Theodore Roosevelt, portrayed by Mark Aldritch. Those Roosevelts do seem to turn up when social justice is at hand, remember “Annie?”

      The show’s most atypical song went to Kate Fahnrer. “Watch What Happens” is about the agony one suffers trying to write just the thing  and trying to find the words to capture momentous events. It also contains a line that makes it dear to Newspaper types everywhere: "Give life’s little guys some ink and when it dries just watch what happens."

     The singing voice to remember in this production is Angela Grovey as Medda Larkin. Her “That’s Rich” is a show stopper, old-school. Once she begins to sing the audience just wants more. She is one of those actresses that I call a “shiny penny.” Onstage, she simply shines and all eyes and ears are on her. Like a new minted penny in the sunlight, you can’t pass her by, nor would you want to miss her.

       For a newspaper writer like me, a musical about newspapers is a treat. It’s a reminder that in its glory days, “The Paper” was where all the news was found.  We waited for the weeklies in the country towns and rushed to the steps for the morning editions in the cities. Our families cut out articles and glued them into scrapbooks. Moms and Grandparents showed these proudly. 

       Politics and action came from “the papes,” too.  We are losing newspapers, and this musical like so much else, will become a “remember when” once they are gone.  The political cartoon even gets a nod in “Newsies.”  This musical absolutely contains a strong message about the importance of a fearless fourth estate to report injustice and stand for the voiceless.

      Art has no better role to play than to make us aware of that we have, what we fight to preserve and what matters in our world. “Newsies, the Musical” tucks a whole lot of that into a wild ride with exciting dance, marvelous sets and top- knotch performances. Newsies the Musical is a song-and-dance map to youth-led change.  

        Maine State Music Theater’s production of Newsies is a great way to wind up the year. “Newsies” is playing through Aug. 26. Get your tickets now because it will sell out fast. Go to www.msmt.org or call 207 725-8769 for box office information. MSMT is in Pickard Theater, Bowdoin College Campus, 1 Bath Road, Brunswick. 

      And no, the hugs from the Director at the end, were not bribes for good notices, just a nice farewell from a new friend, justifiably proud of one hellva show.

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A quote worth reading: To  the strikebreakers: “Listen fellas. I know somebody put yous up to this. They probably payin’ you some extra money too. Yeah? WELL IT AIN’T RIGHT! Pulitzer thinks we are gutter rats, with no respect for nothin’, includin’ each other. Is that who we are? Yeah, we stab each other in the back, that’s who we are.

Yeah, but if we stand together, we change the whole game. And it ain’t just about us. All across this city there are boys and girls who oughtta be out playin’, or goin’ to school, and instead they are slavin’ to support themselves and d their folks.

There ain’t no crime in bein’ poor, and neither one of us complains if the work we do is hard, huh? All we ask is a square deal. So kids, for the sake of every sweatshop, factory and slaughterhouse in this town, I beg you, throw down your papers and join the strike.”

Jack Kelly, Newsies