Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Disney's Newsies: The Musical at Paper Mill Playhouse

In 1992, Walt Disney Pictures released Newsies, a live-action musical film about the newsboys strike of 1899.  It featured a strong score with music by Alan Menken and lyrics by Jack Feldman.   The film cost $15 million dollars and flopped, only grossing a little under $3 million.  However, the film gained fans with regular play on the Disney Channel and through home video.   As one of the few films with boys as leads instead of a princess it has grown into a cult classic.  This is despite the fact that the film received a lot of negative reviews and was nominated for several Razzie awards, winning the worst song award for High Times, Hard Times.

Flash forward to 2011, where Paper Mill Playhouse located in Millburn, New Jersey has mounted the world premiere production of Disney's Newsies: The Musical.  The team of Mr. Menkin and Mr. Feldman have expanded their score, retaining most of the popular anthems and discarding a few of the clunkers (so long High Times, Hard Times).  Acclaimed playwright, Harvey Fierstein has written the book, streamlining the original screenplay by Bob Tzudiker and Noni White.  The result is a high energy stage production perfect for the entire family.  While the script could use a few revisions here and there it is a wonderful premiere for a musical that is sure to have many more productions to come.

Disney's Newsies: The Musical takes place in 1899 New York City.  The newsies are the boys who sell the "papes."  Many live on the streets, others work long hours to help their struggling families.  The leader of the newsies is Jack Kelly, a talented artist who dreams of going west for a better life.  His fellow newsies include Crutchie, struggling with a disability, and two new kids, brothers Davey and Les, whose father was fired after being injured in a factory job. When Joseph Pulitzer, publisher of the World desides to raise the price the newsboys must pay for the papers they sell, he convinces William Randolph Hearst and the other publishers to follow suit.  The boys decide to form a union and strike until the price is cut and the publishers agree to buy back any papers the boys can't sell.   Jack meets girl reporter  Katherine Plumber, who dreams of a promotion from writing the society page to the news beat.  Together the newsies and Katherine take on the world in a fight ultimately for the benefit of all of the oppressed child workers of the city. 

The film is deeply beloved by a lot of people who may not like the changes made to some of the characters and to parts of the story.  However, Mr. Fierstein has reshaped the script so that the focus remains on Jack and the newsies strike.  Therefore some elements have been eliminated and other plot points and characters reimagined.  For example, Katherine Plummer, a fictionalized Nellie Bly-type reporter, replaces Denton, the seasoned newsman of the film.  Her character also provides a more satisfying love interest for Jack than the girl in the film.

There are a few moments in the script that need a bit of polishing.  The adult female characters are not well fleshed out.  Medda the vaudeville owner is here, but she has as little relevance to the overall story as she did in the film   Joseph Pulitzer is written as a stronger villain, but he's a bit over the top in his villainy. That is not to say that John Dossett does not give a good performance.  He does, especially with his new song, The News is Getting Better.  It would help if he had a bit of nuance added to his character, particularly with an act two revelation.  That revelation, involving Katherine's background, seems to come out of nowhere and is a bit jarring.  However, later in act two when two young men assist the newsies with printing their own paper and make an amusing revelation of their own then Katherine's revelation makes sense.  Perhaps a few additional hints before the big reveal would make this plot point less jarring.

The other major script change is diminishing the threat of the boy's jail, The Refuge.  Our hero, Jack is still a fugitive from this place and one of the main characters, Crutchie, is arrested and taken there, but since we don't see The Refuge and its cruelty, the threat of it is lessened and the role of Warden Snyder and his comeuppance seems tacked on and doesn't bring the satisfaction that it did in the film.

As for the overall production itself, Disney's Newsies: The Musical is a rousing, high energy show filled with enthusiastic performances and wonderful production values.   The multi-level set, designed by Tobin Ost, reflects the industrial setting, at once liberating in its versatility and oppressive as it can restrict the freedom of the newsboys.  Sven Ortel's projections give context to the story, giving a sense of time and place.  Jess Goldstein's costumes and Charles LaPointe's hair and wig design evoke the turn of the 20th century while providing ease of movement for the vigorous dancing. 

Choreographer Christopher Gattelli has created dances that combine breathtaking athleticism and pure artistry.   In particular the show-stopping tap-tastic King of New York, which opens act two is a highlight.  But, it is the inventive steps of the show's best known anthem, Seize the Day that is the choreographer's triumph.   From the emotional stomps that evoke the newsies angry decision to strike to the newsprint soft shoe to the heart stopping leaps and flips, this is bravura dancing at its best.

Director Jeff Calhoun guides well his young cast.  Ben Fankhauser has a clear strong voice in Seize The Day and grows throughout the performance as the bookish young man who helps shape the strike. His younger brother, Les, played at evening performances by Vincent Agnello, matinees by RJ Fattori, is both feisty and adorable.  Andrew Keenan-Bolger brings to the role of Crutchie a real emotional core,  his crippled boy who dreams of a better life captures the audience's heart and when the character disappears for most of act two following his arrest he is greatly missed.

Kara Lindsay as Katherine is a strong, confident young woman ready to help the newsies take on the establishment.  Her new song, the pattering Watch What Happens is the best of the new songs added to the score.  Ms. Lindsay has a pleasing voice and a spunky attitude that is perfect for her girl reporter.

And then there's our hero, Jack Kelly himself.  Jeremy Jordan is a star in the making.  He is a leading man with an amazing voice who brings alternating layers of confidence and vulnerability.   Mr. Jordan's charisma shines forth every time he is on the stage.  Whether singing of Jack's dream life in Santa Fe or leading the newsies in almost every ensemble piece, Mr. Jordan gives a commanding performance.  Broadway is in for a treat when Mr. Jordan next appears in the new musical Bonnie and Clyde next year.

Disney's Newsies: The Musical is a well conceived first production.  The show is sure to do well once the the amateur and high school rights become available.  Yet, with a little revision Newsies: The Musical has a chance to be a great show.   One hopes that Disney Theatrical Productions considers giving it more chances on the professional level.   This is a show that deserves to find itself on the Great White Way.

Disney's Newsies: The Musical will be performed at Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn, New Jersey through October 16, 2011.  For tickets and other performance information, please visit www.PaperMill.org

Friday, September 23, 2011

Hamlet at the Maryland Renaissance Festival

Revel Grove is an English village set amidst 25 acres of beautiful woods.   As you wander about the village you might encounter a madrigal choir serenading you with a tune written by King Henry VIII.   Above you an acrobat contorts perilously from silks and rings to the applause from the audience below.   A crowd claps and sings along to rousing piratical tunes at the White Hart Tavern.  Johnny Fox demonstrates the art of sword swallowing at the Royal Stage.   And from a replica of an outdoor Elizabethan theater comes these familiar lines, “Speake the Speech, I pray you, as I pronounc’d it to you trippingly on the Tongue: But if you mouth it, as many of your Players do, I had live the Town-Cryer spoke my lines: . .”

Welcome to the Maryland Renaissance Festival. Located in Crownsville, Maryland just outside the state capitol of Annapolis, the Maryland Renaissance Festival is one of the most acclaimed and best attended renaissance festivals in the United States.  The entertainment choices range from bawdy tavern music to children’s theater, high wire balancing to full-contact jousting.  Quality professional theater is also an important part of the experience.   While the theatrical offerings range from the aforementioned children’s theater to original scripts highlighting the storyline for the royal court of King Henry VIII, perhaps the most unique experience one can attend is a performance of a classical play.  For decades, the professional acting company, under the auspices of Artistic Director, Carolyn Spedden, has performed plays by Shakespeare, Moliere, Garrick and Rostand. While these works are adapted for time constraints, usually shortened to ninety minutes or less, the caliber of the acting and the direction is on par with that in the nearby metropolis’ of Baltimore and Washington DC.

For the 35th anniversary of the Maryland Renaissance Festival, the professional acting company is presenting William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, under the direction of John Sadowsky and starring Jack Powers. Why Hamlet?  “Why not Hamlet?” declares director John Sadowsky. “ We haven’t done it before.  It is one of the most popular plays in the canon.  It is such a beautifully constructed story, and one of my favorites.”

However, in order to produce Hamlet the play had to be reduced to two 50-minute acts. “John Sadowsky explained the challenge in cutting Hamlet. “Trimming the longest play to fit in time less than his  (Shakespeare’s) shortest was indeed a challenge.  First and foremost, I wanted to tell the basic story of Hamlet’s conflicts and revenge.  Some decisions were quite straightforward – we will stick to what is going on in Denmark.   And so much of the recapitulations of the story throughout the play were removed.  On the other hand, I didn’t want to touch the well-known soliloquies or famous lines any more than was absolutely essential. “  

Jack Powers, who has a Bachelor of Arts in Theatre from Muhlenberg College and numerous classical and musical theater credits to his resume welcomed the challenge of playing Shakespeare’s most famous character.  When asked if anything had been cut from the script that he wished could be restored, Mr. Powers responded, “Not really.  Most of the cuts were made around the central revenge plot, so much of the introspection and philosophy are missing.  I think these elements are certainly iconic of the play, but ultimately they do not service the main action – they are intellectual side plots that, while certainly generating academic discussion, are not essential, in my opinion, for the characters.”   

 The trimming of the play has had another benefit for the characters of Gertrude and Ophelia.  “With so much of the men’s talking gone, we can see more clearly the development and growth of Gertrude and Ophelia as real human beings,” says John Sadowsky.   The relationships among the main characters also became clearer particularly with the decision to cast a young Hamlet.  “Seeing Jack’s audition caused me to modify my original thoughts about Hamlet.  I was going to go with the traditional 30-something, who just prefers to stay in and around his college until called back to Elsinore to assume the throne.  But I saw something special in Jack’s audition and decided to go with the 20-year-old Hamlet, a real college student who is genuinely pissed off at not succeeding his father and who could be goaded into action by the ghost of his father (real or imagined).  “He isn’t any more indecisive than any other 20-something and we can clearly see the vengeance plot take hold.  And Jack has plenty of youthful exuberance, charm, intelligence, and playfulness that really rounds out Hamlet and makes him a joy to watch.  Our Hamlet is sympathetic and not the indecisive whiny complainer that sometimes comes across.”

Another aspect of the play that benefited from the decision to cast a 20-something Hamlet came in the casting of Claudius and Gertrude.  John Sadowsky explains,  “I wanted a somewhat younger Claudius and Gertrude with which the audience could well understand their love story.  Both had to be complex – Claudius is not pure evil and Gertrude is not simply a spoil of Claudius’ plot.  Her love and concern for her son and her husband had to be real.  John Stange and Kelly Gray both showed the human side in their audition.” 

The reduction of the story to fit a particular time “slot” on the Globe Theater stage led to challenges in rehearsal.  John Sadowsky, who also directed the 2010 production of Don Quixote, Book II by Baltimore playwright Mike Field, drew a comparison between the two productions.  “The biggest challenge is that I didn’t have the playwright to work with this time.  In Don Quixote, we approached the rehearsal as a developmental process; the script was a work in progress and was subject to change, depending on how scenes work and what needed adjusting once we saw how it all looked in performance.  Although Hamlet is a well established and complete play, our edited version in many ways was like a developmental work and actors could find new cuts (and re-additions) at just about every rehearsal until we had it working the way I wanted.  I have directed established plays before without the time constraint (a very real one as all shows have strict schedule limits at the Renaissance Festival) so I found it both challenging and lots of fun to approach Shakespeare as if it were a new play under development.”

Performing in an outdoor venue has built-in challenges such as distracting noises and weather conditions.   However, the actors performing  in Hamlet must also compete with the sights and sounds of the entire Renaissance Festival.   The Royal Stage is right next door and the popular White Hart Tavern up the road.  Vendors hawk beef jerky and pretzels near the back of the audience.   The crowds pass through on their way to other shows.   “The performance space is both a blessing and a curse, “ says Jack Powers.  “The former, in that it keeps you from agonizing too much over subtle, minute character choices, since none of your choices will matter if you cannot project your voice and personality into the noisy throng at the Globe.  The latter, because it challenges you much more so than a conventional theatrical performance to be very mindful of how you use your voice and body to express – you have to be loud and expressive enough to command attention, yet employ enough physical economy so as to preserve your voice and body through the entire performance as well as the rest of the festival day, since almost all the Hamlet actors also have street characters.”

The Maryland Renaissance Festival’s professional actors not only have to appear in stage shows, the majority of them also appear as members of King Henry VIII’s royal court or as villagers of Revel Grove.   This adds to the vocal and physical stamina required by the actors as the performance day lasts from 10 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. Saturdays, Sundays and Labor Day Monday from late August to late October.

By far the most challenging aspect of the performance of the Maryland Renaissance Festival’s production of Hamlet comes with its hour-long intermission.   The seats at the Globe Theater stage are wooden benches and the lengthy intermission gives theater devotees a chance to stretch their legs, use the privy, and grab an ale before returning for act two.    As an actor, Jack Powers discussed his challenge in having an hour-long break in his performance.  “The fun part will be the hour-long intermission between the two acts – too short to transition back to my street character, but too long for a lunch break.  I think Hamlet will be taking a gander through Revel Grove.”   Mr. Powers has the advantage that the member of the village he plays is a Sheriff’s Deputy, part of, as he calls it, “a jovial group of swashbucklers.” As he has a familiarity with that character he finds transitioning between the swashbuckler and the vengeful Prince of Denmark fairly easy to accomplish.

With the challenges of performing classical theater in a Renaissance Festival setting comes certain realities that are not necessarily present in more traditional theater.  There is the very real possibility that an audience member might choose to view Act One on one performance day and Act Two on another performance day.   For the benefit of audience members who have missed Act One a brief recap is presented before Act Two commences.   For those audience members who decide to continue in their seats during intermission,  the entertainment schedule at the Globe Theater provides even more Hamlet, this time on the comedic side as at 2:00 p.m. Happenstance Theater presents Something Rotten, “a wordless romp through the highlights of Hamlet,” starring Mark Jaster and Sabrina Mandell, who also portray the Player King and Queen in Hamlet.  The very popular Shakespeare’s Skum entertains the crowd at 2:30 p.m. with their hilarious Leave It To Hamlet.  It is possible to immerse oneself in all things Hamlet for three hours if one so chooses.   Yet, it is the opportunity to see quality Shakespeare, performed by a professional company of actors under the auspices of an acclaimed director that makes this production of Hamlet a triumphant achievement for the 35th anniversary of the Maryland Renaissance Festival.

William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, directed by John Sadowsky and starring Jack Powers as Hamlet will be performed at the Maryland Renaissance Festival’s Globe Theatre Stage at 1:00 and 3:00 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays through October 23, 2011.  For tickets to the Maryland Renaissance Festival and other performance information please visit www.rennfest.com.

Monday, September 12, 2011

No Tailgaiting Allowed!!! A commentary on Jiffy Lube Live

The consumption of alcohol has always been prohibited in the parking lot at the concert venue currently known as Jiffy Lube Live located in the Northern Virginia suburb of Bristow, Virginia.    The Thespian has memories of attending concerts during the venue's very first season when the venue was known as Nissan Pavilion at Stone Ridge, in 1995 when one had to cleverly disguise alcoholic beverages.  The alcohol ban since then was mostly winked at until two high profile drunk driving deaths occurred.

In 2009, tragedy struck when a grandmother and grandchild were killed by a drunk driver who had attended the Jimmy Buffett concert.   In 2010, two teenagers were killed in similar circumstances following a Rascal Flatts concert.    During the 2010 concert season, there was a zero tolerance for alcohol in the parking lot.   Many Prince William County police officers patrolled the tailgating fans and, if they believed that your plastic cup was more than soda, they would demand that you pour it out on the ground.

For the 2011 season, Live Nation, the owner of Jiffy Lube Live, decided to go one step further and ban tailgating in the parking lots before and after all concerts.   This led to an uproar, as the policy was not announced in advance of ticket sales and many concertgoers only discovered the policy when their tickets arrived with "No Tailgating"written upon them.   This led to the formation of a Boycott Jiffy Lube Live Facebook page.   Kid Rock declared on YouTube that he would no longer play concerts at the venue.   Fans of Jimmy Buffett, for whom the tailgating party is part of the concert experience, wondered whether he would make a similar declaration.

There are valid reasons for banning tailgating at concert venues and sporting arenas.   First, it discourages the heavy consumption of alcohol before the events.   One assumes that if the pre-party is taken off the grounds either a designated driver would drive his inebriated friends to the concert or that responsible adults would limit their consumption of alcohol knowing that they had to drive.   It also eliminates the vast amount of trash that accumulates in the parking lots and cuts down on the public urination that occurs on the edges of the parking lots as well.  The tailgating ban also makes exiting the venue after the concert much easier as there is less debris to dodge when trying to navigate out of the parking lot. The Prince William County police are also in favor of the tailgating ban as it lessens the arrests and accidents that occur following concerts.

The problem with the new policy isn't its good intentions.   The problem with the new policy is two fold.

First,  if the goal is to eliminate drunk driving, then why does  Jiffy Lube Live serve alcoholic beverages for the entire length of the concert?  Even sporting events stop serving after the seventh inning stretch.  Bars have a last call.   Not Jiffy Lube Live.   The venue serves frozen margaritas and daiquiris for $14, wine for $10, and beer for $10-$13.   At the Jimmy Buffett concert alcohol was served from the moment the venue opened to concertgoers (the parking lot opened at 4:00 p.m.) until Mr. Buffett finished his third encore at 10:20 p.m.   If the goal is to prevent drunk driving, Jiffy Lube Live is 100% contributing to the problem.

The second problem is how Jiffy Lube Live defines tailgating.   Any other venue, concert or sporting, would consider tailgating as setting up a space around your vehicle in order to party.   Chairs, grills, coolers, decorations, etc.    So, what does Jiffy Lube Live consider tailgating?  Are you sitting in your car?   A parking lot attendant will knock on your window and tell you that is not allowed as that is tailgating.    Did you bring a sandwich to eat instead of spending a lot of money on food inside the venue?   A parking lot attendant will knock on your window and tell you that is not allowed as that is tailgating.   Did you bring a beach ball to toss around the pavilion during the show?   Better hide it under your shirt as it was reported to The Thespian by a few Parrothead fans that their beach balls were confiscated as that was considered tailgating.  (Normally beach balls and inflatable beach toy sharks are tossed through a Jimmy Buffett concert.  At the September 1, 2011 concert, The Thespian counted --there were less than 10).

It is this hostile environment towards their paying customers that is going to cost Jiffy Lube Live business.   Thanks to its no refund policy, there was little damage to Jiffy Lube Live's coffers in 2011.   The one exception was the Jimmy Buffett concert.   Originally scheduled to be performed on August 27, 2011, the concert was postponed until September 1, 2011.  Refunds were available to those who could not attend the rescheduled concert.   What was a few hundred seats available on the 27th became thousands of seats available for September 1.    Whether it was the short notice or the fact that it was a weeknight instead of a weekend or whether people took advantage of the refund to send a message of displeasure over Jiffy Lube Live's new no tailgating policy one cannot be certain.   The proof will be the 2012 concert season.  How many performers will refuse to book Jiffy Lube Live?  How many concertgoers will not buy tickets to protest the no tailgating policy?   As Jimmy Buffett sings "Only Time Will Tell."