High-kicking newspaper hawkers practically leap off the stage at Chanhassen Dinner Theatres, where “Disney’s Newsies” had its spirited opening Friday. The razzle-dazzle dance moves, choreographed by longtime Chanhassen dancemaker Tamara Kangas Erickson, inject a dose of extra — Extra! — pizazz into director Michael Brindisi’s neat production.
The liveliness and zest of Chanhassen’s staging are worlds away from the ho-hum movie on which it was based. That 1992 feature, starring Christian Bale, was a box office dud but became a slow-burning cult hit on video. Composer Alan Menken, lyricist Jack Feldman and book writer Harvey Fierstein tweaked the story line, added musical numbers and created a hit that bowed on Broadway in 2012 and ran for 1,004 performances.
A David and Goliath story is at the heart of “Newsies,” inspired by an 1899 newsboy strike in New York City.
In one corner, you have a ragtag crew of mostly orphaned young men (and one young woman, played with verve by Renee Guittar) who sell newspapers to scrape together a living. In the other, you have the newspaper titans, led by kingmaker Joseph Pulitzer, who has the New York police and all manner of power at his disposal. The publishers want to raise the price of their papers, which could affect sales. The hawkers rebel.
“Newsies” harks to a more overtly sexist era when women writers were consigned to the society pages. But one woman, who writes under the byline Katherine Plummer (Ruthanne Heyward), is trying to change that. She’s the only reporter who pays attention to the newsies, and hopes she’ll be rewarded for her scoop with the chance to write about anything.
From the story line to the music, there’s a knockoff quality about “Newsies.” So many of Menken’s compositions suggest other shows. The overture feels like the intro to “Annie” — and could just as easily lead to “Tomorrow” as to “Santa Fe,” the big number here.
Fortunately, Chanhassen has a star-studded cast. Aleks Knezevich brings heart to strike leader Jack Kelly, an inveterate flirt with a soft spot for Katherine and for painting. Calling on his ample charisma and talent, he powers through “Santa Fe,” investing that opening number, performed alongside Lucas Wells’ Crutchie, with hope and dreaminess.
Knezevich is an able lead, showing strong chemistry both with fellow newsies and with Heyward’s Katherine. For her part, Katherine comes from a place of privilege and strength. She expertly deflects Jack’s attention and she delivers “Watch What Happens” with steely determination under the sharp baton of conductor Andrew Bourgoin.
Surehanded powerhouse Kersten Rodau can always be counted on to hold the spotlight and as theater owner Medda Larkin, she sparkles on the shade-laden “That’s Rich.” And young Tanner Zahn Hagen is button-cute as Les, the youngest newsie.
There’s bluster and a touch of irony in “Newsies,” but the overwhelming feature of Brindisi’s staging is sincerity. The cast follows that lead, delivering with honesty in a show that makes headlines for the right reasons.
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