Monday, July 22, 2019

Extra! Extra! Read All About 'Newsies!'

By Dan Hagen
Child labor hasn’t been this much fun since Annie.
The Little Theatre’s current production is the first time I’ve seen Newsies in any form. And a labor-based musical, however fanciful, is an occurrence rare enough to deserve some consideration. Bart Rettberg reminded me about the 1954 Broadway musical The Pajama Game, but no others spring readily to mind.
The real-life New York City Newsboys Strike of 1899 inspired this confection, which was a 1992 Disney movie before it moved to the stage.
The show’s setting is remote enough in time not to raise any eyebrows for siding with the literally unwashed masses against capital. But it also retains an afterglow of urgency from the fact that none of these issues has ever really gone away. The fight for a living wage is still a live wire here.
The opening songs focus on that that staple theme of American entertainment, good old feel-good poverty. It isn’t until Joseph Pulitzer (Gus Gordon) cuts the newsboys’ meager wages, sparking an impromptu strike, that the story really engages our interest.
Teddy Roosevelt (Marty Harbaugh) serves precisely the same role here that his fifth cousin Franklin Delano Roosevelt did in Annie — the powerful, benevolent deus ex machina that neatly ties up the package by siding with the underdogs. The show taught me some history. I did not know, for example, that a teenager’s drawings caused Teddy Roosevelt to clean up the New York State penal system.
Director Peter Marinaro’s production cannot completely mute the factory whistle of manufactured merriment that is so often built in to a Disney show. The music by Alan Menken, Jack Feldman and Harvey Fierstein is not immortal, but it is serviceable.
Alexander Capeneka’s moveable set, backed by a projection screen, skillfully suggests elevated train tracks and city rooftops.
And while this production may be short on spectacle, it is long on talent.
A Little Theatre veteran, Gordon gives an assured performance as the newspaper magnate Pulitzer, perfectly puffed up with his own power.
Garret Griffin is Crutchie, the Tiny Tim of the piece, whose job it is to be a buoyantly optimistic boy because he’s the one nearest to drowning. That’s a role that could easily be cloying, but Griffin gives it heart.
Ironically, Equity actress Alex Kidder is Katherine, the Lois Lane of this show. Plucky and pretty, she’s an aspiring reporter who gives as good as she gets.
Equity actress Heather Beck is Medda Larkin, the Ethel Merman/Reno Sweeney of this show. She pulls in the audience by belting out That’s Rich, a saucy song that is one of the production’s best numbers (“I live in a mansion on/Long Island sound. I pulled up a weed, they/Found oil in the ground./But you telling me you don't/Want me around — Now, honey, that's rich.”)
Tyler Pirrung plays Davey, the newsboy who’s relatively wealthy only because his impoverished parents are still alive. His best turn comes in Seize the Day, a stompy strike dance with helicoptering legs that shows off Joey Dippel’s choreography to good effect.
One of my favorite performers, Corey John Hafner, is the streetwise newsboy Race. He shines in the look-at-me number King of New York, and it’s not every actor who can make an audience roar merely by pronouncing the word “oyster.”
New York actor Bradley Cashman, as the newsboys’ champion Jack Kelly, has the requisite roguish charm, and his feisty romance with Kidder is more credible than most. Cashman impresses the audience at the curtain of the first act with his soaring tribute to his Shangri-La, Santa Fe.
Funny to think that if Jack had ever realized his young man’s dream of going west, he might have run into Curly, Laurey, Jud, Will and Ado Annie, the characters from the Little Theatre’s previous production, Oklahoma!, which is dramatically contemporary to Newsies.
They might have looked oddly familiar to him.
Incidental intelligence:  Newsies runs through July 28. For tickets, call The Little Theatre On The Square Box Office at 217-728-7375.
Musical direction is by Kevin Long, with lighting design by Mitchell Ost.
The talented cast includes Cian Lynch, Jordan Cyphert, Trevor Vanderzee, Nicholas Wilson, Nicholas Carroll, Emily Long, Emily Bacino Althaus, Kate Turner, Mandy Modic, Brittany Ambler, Madilyn Keller, Bradyn Wambach, Jaimar Brown, Lars Kristian Hafell, James Garrett Hill, Izzy Miller, Madeline Cohoon and Grace Lynch.

Friday, July 19, 2019

Take a Hike, Joe. Take Your Lunch Pail With You

"I don't think 500 billionaires are the reason we're in trouble,” Biden said. But they, and the system that created them while impoverishing millions, ARE the reason we're in trouble. They're the problem Biden refuses to see. 
Why? Because, as Upton Sinclair observed, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.”
So the Democratic Party is hoping to replace a wannabe banana republic dictator with a glad-handing old hack who spent his entire legislative career playing footsy with the GOP and selling out to Wall Street. Well, happy days aren’t here again. Let me see if I can find a flag tiny enough to wave.
I'll tell you one thing. If you're waiting for America to be saved, Lunch Pail Joe, the GOP's best pal, won't be the man to do it.

The Hour of the Rough Beast

"And what rough beastits hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?"

God's Agenda

You go right on being Christians. Don’t let the fact that none of it’s true bother you.

Sunday, July 14, 2019

The Dunces of the DNC

Actual Democrats are now on the left. The cowardly party apparatus is just left over.

Thursday, July 11, 2019

When Left Is Right

Who gave control of the country to the fascists? The “centrists,” the people who pretend nobody is ever really right or wrong and refuse to recognize evil even as children’s corpses pile up in front of their faces.

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

An 'Oklahoma!' for the 21st Century

By Dan Hagen
Ordinarily, I don’t give standing ovations. I think they should be reserved only for rarities, for extraordinary, dazzling performances. Yet last night, I rose to my feet, applauding.
I’ve seen several productions of the musical Oklahoma!, but the one now playing at the Little Theatre in Sullivan is the best of them.
Over seven decades, this show has become encrusted with so much cheese that it might as well be called Wisconsin! But this production is vibrant and vivacious, and finally gives me a hint of what all the fuss was about when this Rodgers and Hammerstein musical first wowed Broadway in 1943.
And the credit is due to two things, I think. One is the fact that director Peter Marinaro has managed to add a subtle and persistently dark chord to this sometimes saccharine musical.
In many productions, the American future that stretches ahead of these settlers comes off as confident and assured. But here, their All Er Nothin’ gamble on the barren prairie seems just as likely to leave them empty-handed. The marginality and sketchiness of these settlers’ lives is somehow suggested, along with the note of nervousness that underlies all their bravado.
Kincade and Cyphert as Aunt Eller and Will
As veteran actress Therese Kincade says in her best scene: “Oh, lots of things happen to folks. Sickness, er bein’ pore and hungry even — bein’ old and a-feared to die. That’s the way it is, cradle to grave. And you can stand it. They’s one way. You gotta be hearty, you got to be. You cain’t deserve the sweet and tender in life less’n you’re tough.”
Corny? Not when Kincade says the words. She gives the speech reality, making it both chilling and bracing. That IS the way things are, and the audience knows it — whether it’s 1906 or 1943 or 2019.
And that’s the other big advantage of this production — top talent in all the principal roles.
Kincade could play the irascible-but-wise-and-lovable Aunt Eller in her sleep, but keeps the audience awake with her verve, as when she fires off a gun to halt a brawl and booms, “They ain’t nobody goin’ to slug out any thin’! This here’s a PARTY!”
As the peddler Ali Hakim, the angular Tyler Pirrung is as sharp in his retorts as he is in his business practices.
Ambler and Cyphert as Ado Annie and Will
I’ve seen how easily Equity actor Jordan Cyphert can play smooth and debonair. But here, as cowboy Will Parker, he’s convincingly dim-witted, yet still as bright as them newfangled electric streetlights over to Kansas City.
Will Parker’s pert and promiscuous lady love, Ado Annie, is played with flawless comedic flourishes by Brittany Ambler, an actress who never wastes a gesture, never fails to reward the audience’s wandering eye.
The young cowboy hero Curly McLaine is required to sell you on his love of life in the first moments of the show, and this one, Trevor Vanderzee, does the trick. The handsome actor even seems to have the glint of that morning sun he’s singing about in his eye.
Turner and Vanderzee as Laurey and Curly
Vanderzee’s performance suggested something of what might have been missing in all those other Curlys I’ve seen. For example, when Curly is selling his “kinda nice horse, gentle and well broke” Dun to prove his love for Laurey, Vanderzee makes his sadness about that necessity quietly palpable.
But Kate Turner, as Laurey Williams, is worth it. What Turner brings to the proceedings is an Ellen Burstyn-like recognizable reality.
For most of this musical, Curly and Laurey act like the silly, self-defeating teenagers they are, full of pride and prejudice. But Turner makes her character so emotionally real in her hopes and hurts that you simply have to root for the young couple.
Over the decades, I have surprised myself by realizing that my favorite of the show’s several hit songs is now Many a New Day, Laurey’s breezy, fancy-free, proto-feminist anthem (check out Daryl Sherman’s jazzy version for a treat).
The heavy darkness of Jud Fry, the psychopathic farm hand who is obsessed with Laurey, is the anchor that stabilizes the show, giving it gravitas and freeing it from the silliness of some productions I’ve seen.
Alhough Jud’s loneliness and agony are sometimes poignant, actor Nicholas Carroll never lets us forget how rattlesnake-dangerous this insular, increasingly deranged predator is.
The funny business of Poor Jud Is Daid seems almost out of place with this Jud Fry. He’s just too menacing and too tortured a man to laugh at.
Glancing at the sweeping, impressionistic prairie landscape behind the actors, you’re impressed. And then you’re more impressed when you notice that the clouds are moving. Noel Rennerfeldt’s impressive set is frequently filled with the whirling exuberance of Kristen Brooks Sandler’s choreography, including the dream sequence with dancers all in white.
When this cast sings the familiar, rousing title tune, you believe they really do love the land in this, the most American of musicals.
Once, this show resonated with the economic optimism and conformity of postwar America. Now, in expert hands like these, it can be made to reflect the vast landscape of hard facts that is on the 21st century American horizon.
I always knew Oklahoma! could entertain. But I never knew it could grow.

Incidental intelligence:  Oklahoma! runs through July 14. For tickets, call The Little Theatre On The Square Box Office at 217-728-7375.
Musical direction is by Kevin Long, with lighting design by Zach Pizza and costumes by Jana Henry Funderburk.
The talented cast includes Rich Beans, Emily Bacino Althaus, Mandy Modic, James Garrett Hill, Jaimar Brown, Corey John Hafner, Lars Kristian Hafell, Garrett Griffin, Mason Phipps, Heather J. Beck, Emily Long, Emily Miller-Amato and Madilyn Keller.