Newspaper vendors go on strike in fleet-footed musical

Stephanie Styles and Dan DeLuca play Katherine and Jack in the touring production of Newsies (photo by Deen van Meer)
Stephanie Styles and Dan DeLuca play Katherine and Jack in the touring production of Newsies (photo by Deen van Meer)

By Richard Ades

It was kind of odd watching Newsies Tuesday night at the Ohio Theatre.

The history-based Disney musical is basically a salute to the power of unions. As a result, it was hard to see it without remembering that a blatantly anti-union law had been passed about four years ago right across the street at the Statehouse—or that the governor who signed the law was re-inaugurated on Monday night.

All of that might have made it hard to enjoy the musical except that the anti-union law was overwhelmingly repealed thanks to a 2011 referendum. Yes, the little guys do occasionally win out in real life, as they do in Disney musicals.

Based on a 1992 movie, which was based on the Newsboys Strike of 1899, Newsies is about what happens when New York City newspapers put the screws to the young lads who eke out a living by selling their products on the street.

Joseph Pulitzer (Steve Blanchard), owner of the New York World, is the first to raise the wholesale price his “newsies” must pay, thinking that’s the easiest way to offset recent losses. He doesn’t count on the tenacity of Jack Kelly (Dan DeLuca), the paper pushers’ unofficial leader.

Jack persuades Manhattan-based newsies to go on strike, then begins seeking support from their counterparts in other New York boroughs. Backing him up are his best friend, Crutchie (Zachary Sayle), along with newcomer Davey (Jacob Kemp) and his little brother, Les (played at alternate performances by Vincent Crocella and Anthony Rosenthal).

Fighting the newspapers is a nearly impossible task, but unexpected help comes in the form of Katherine (Stephanie Styles), a society reporter who wants to write about the labor struggle to prove she’s ready to graduate to hard news.

Newsies gained several Tony nominations after opening on Broadway in 2012, but it won only for its musical score and choreography. The touring version makes it clear that these remain the show’s prime strengths.

With music by Alan Menken and lyrics by Jack Feldman, the score has several enjoyable numbers. They include The World Will Know, a defiant anthem that captures the spirit (if not the power) of Les Miz’s Do You Hear the People Sing?, and Watch What Happens, an amusing expression of Katherine’s determination in the face of self-doubt.

True, a few of the other numbers are either less memorable or less relevant, coming off as mere filler. But a worse problem on opening night was a sound system that often failed to elevate the generally fine voices above the large band conducted by James Dodgson. It sometimes was hard to pick out the lyrics, particularly in the group numbers.

Working under Jeff Calhoun’s direction, DeLuca makes Jack such a caricature of New York swagger that he’s not as compelling a hero as he might be. (Also, he seemed to suffer from subpar amplification at Tuesday’s performance.) But Styles turns Katherine into a lovable heroine, while Blanchard’s Pulitzer is such an effectively loathsome villain that you can almost imagine him twirling his mustache.

The real stars, though, are choreographer Christopher Gattelli and his spinning, leaping and somersaulting dancers. Several numbers fill Tobin Ost’s set with amazing moments of motion.

The dancing makes this musical history lesson as impressive as it is inspiring.

Broadway in Columbus and CAPA will present Newsies through Sunday (Jan. 18) at the Ohio Theatre, 39 E. State St. Show times are 7:30 p.m. through Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, and 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $28-$98. 614-469-0939, 1-800-745-3000 or ticketmaster.com.

Struggling to grow up in the Reagan era

Newsies demonstrates that 1890s young adults could accomplish quite a lot when they put their minds to it. Kenneth Lonergan’s This Is Our Youth, in contrast, shows that 1980s young adults could accomplish next to nothing, especially when their minds were clouded by drugs and immaturity.

It’s a savvy, clever portrait of an era and an age group that is entertaining until it gets bogged down in talkiness and redundancy, as it does during the second act.

In Warehouse Theatre Company’s production, the three actors give fully committed performances under Kristofer Green’s direction: John Connor as the self-absorbed Dennis, Jesse Massaro as the self-doubting Warren and Erin Mellon as the emotionally cautious Jessica.

Will Warren find a way to recover the $15,000 he stole from his hated father? And will he ever connect with Jessica, the oblivious object of his romantic obsession?

Such questions hold the viewers’ interest for a while, but Lonergan eventually overplays his dramatic cards. It’s a shame, because the actors do everything they can to keep us involved.

It’s a valiant effort, to say the least.

Warehouse Theatre Company will present This Is Our Youth at 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday (Jan. 15-17) at MadLab Theatre and Gallery, 227 N. Third St. Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $22, $15 student rush. 614-371-5940 or warehousetheatre.org.

Long-gone troupe returns with homage to Broadway belter

Heather Carvel as the title performer in Big Voice: The Ethel Merman Experience (photo courtesy of Warehouse Theatre Company)
Heather Carvel as the title performer in Big Voice: The Ethel Merman Experience (photo courtesy of Warehouse Theatre Company)

By Richard Ades

It’s been about a decade since the Warehouse Theatre Company made a brief but impressive appearance on the Columbus theater scene. Now it’s returned with Big Voice: The Ethel Merman Experience, written and directed by artistic director Kristofer Green.

Part biography and part musical revue, the original work is a bold choice for a comeback. But it’s also a risky choice, as it relies on viewers’ fond memories of the belter who was known as the “first lady” of musical comedy. Since Merman reached her peak long before her death in 1984, only older viewers will have such memories.

Those who do will realize that leading lady Heather Carvel is doing a pretty good imitation of Merman’s brassy vocal style. My maim complaint is that Carvel’s portrayal often comes off as a caricature rather than an impersonation. She’s at her best on the more dramatic songs, such as the Jule Styne/Stephen Sondheim number Rose’s Turn from Gypsy.

If Carvel’s voice is the show’s greatest strength, its biggest weakness may be the choice of material.

Following a format similar to that of the current Broadway hit Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill, Big Voice finds Merman playing a nightclub and recalling highlights of her career between renditions of her favorite tunes. The trouble is, you can take the word “highlights” literally. Though Merman’s life had its share of disappointments, they seldom make it into the show.

Warehouse says Big Voice is “based on the words of Ethel Merman,” which may explain why it’s so stubbornly upbeat. Since Green apparently was unwilling to put words into Merman’s mouth, the play is seldom more revealing or dramatic than typical nightclub patter.

Adding a little variety, each of the two acts comes with its own “guest star”: Donald O’Connor (Cody Michael Shope) in Act 1 and Mary Martin (Elisabeth Tate) in Act 2. O’Connor’s bit is enjoyable, as Shope sings and dances well. On the other hand, the Carvel/Tate duets could do more to exploit the personality differences between the bombastic Merman and the sweetly refined Martin. (For a real-life Merman/Martin duet, check out this link.)

Though Big Voice isn’t as dramatically interesting as it might have been, a show that includes tunes such as I’ve Got Rhythm, Everything’s Coming Up Roses and There’s No Business Like Show Business can’t help supplying a good deal of musical fun. Still, the best thing about the play is that it marks the return of Warehouse Theatre.

If you’re old enough to remember Warehouse productions such as 2003’s Assassins or A Piece of My Heart, its reappearance will give you cause for hope.

Warehouse Theatre Company will present Big Voice: The Ethel Merman Experience through June 28 at the Columbus Performing Arts Center, 549 Franklin Ave. Show times are 8 p.m. Friday and 3 p.m. Saturday. Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $25; student rush tickets are available for $15. 614-371-5940 or warehousetheatre.org.