Chanhassen Dinner Theatres kicks off their 50th year with a show that will put a smile on anyone’s face: Disney’s Newsies. My sister and I watched the movie (1992) countless times growing up, so we were pretty excited when it was turned into a Broadway production and enjoyed the tour that made a stop here last year. What makes it even more special is that the story is based on true events.
In 1899, kids as young as ten years old worked the streets of New York hawking newspapers to make a living. Two of the biggest paper moguls, Joseph Pulitzer of the New York World and William Randolph Hearst of the New York Journal, decided they could make more money by charging the newsies 60 cents per 100 papes instead of 50 cents. The kids had it pretty rough already, so this was a low blow. They banned together and united child laborers from across the city to go on strike until prices were put back in place.
In the movie and show, this movement is led by Jack Kelly, who acts as somewhat of a leader of the newsies. Aleks Knezevich brings charm and a gorgeous voice to the role — but this could be said about all of the performers playing newsies as there really isn’t a weak link in the cast. Special shout out to Renee Guittar for repping the lady newsies throughout, and kudos to CDT for including a female newsie. They existed but are nowhere to be found in the movie or the Broadway version.
Jack takes newcomers Davey and Les (Alan Bach and Tanner Zahn Hagen, respectively) under his wing to teach them the ins and outs of selling papes, but really they have a lot to learn from each other. In the movie, Jack’s romantic interest is Les and Davey’s sister Sarah, but the musical introduces Katherine who is light years better. She’s an up and coming journalist, and a wonderfully strong female role. Ruthanne Heyward holds her own with this largely male cast, and she shines as Katherine. “King of New York” is always a crowd pleaser as the audience is treated to tap dancing, and I love that they’re singing about Katherine being the King.
And honestly, I have to hand it to Tanner for his performance as Les. He gives 200% the whole time, and he’s a delight to watch. And yes, he deserves a paragraph strictly for this reason.
The choreography by Tamara Kangas Erickson kept me smiling from ear to ear throughout the show. The set’s levels take over the stage a bit, making the choreography more challenging, but she’s faced it head on and finds smart ways to utilize the whole stage. Director Michael Brindisi also rises to the occasion with this task and brings out the best in all of the performers while keeping the audience visually interested. One thing that’s always special about a CDT show is that the performers come into the audience at one point or another which really makes you feel like you’re part of the show. Also, projections of black and white photos of real life newsies and old New York pull you back to the time period thanks to scenic design by Nayna Ramey.
“There’s change coming, once and for all.”
The overall message of the show is something many of us hold near and dear to our hearts right now: resistance. If we’re experiencing or witnessing injustices, more often people are taking a stand and pushing back. There is strength in numbers, and we can make a difference.
The previous night I saw School of Rock at The Orpheum, and watching Newsies made me think back on the song “Stick It To The Man,” which talks about sticking it to the “man” who makes the rules. As we’ve learned from Emma Gonzalez and other students who experienced the Parkland school shooting, we often don’t give younger generations as much credit as we should, and they are realizing they have more power than they’re often led to believe. They deserve just as much respect as anyone else, and they have valuable things to say so they need to keep speaking up and we need to listen to them. This also goes for people in people who have less power economically. Just because someone makes less money than you doesn’t mean they’re a lesser human and give you reason to treat them poorly.
I walked away from Newsies feeling freshly inspired and thoroughly entertained. The show runs through September 29 at Chanhassen Dinner Theatres. It’s full of heart, and people of any age will enjoy it. Purchase tickets on the CDT website.