HT Review: Stars and strikes stun the stage
Connie Shakalis | H-T Reviewer
December 15, 2019
I saw stars Saturday, and it was the middle of the afternoon.
Kate Galvin, artistic director of Cardinal Stage, has plucked these stars from Bloomington, New York and other lucky places. She directed the company’s current production, “Newsies,” and it delivers — better than any newspaper delivery I’ve ever had.
The story (book by Harvey Fierstein, who wrote “Torch Song Trilogy,” La Cage aux Folles,” and “Kinky Boots,” to name a few) centers on child labor in 1899 in New York, particularly, the children who delivered newspapers. They were termed “newsies,” and with most child laborers, were taken advantage of by the adults who enjoyed the benefits of profits. Many other children, too, worked in factories and warehouses, to which the story alludes.
Out of these cruel years, a variety of our child labor laws arose. Yesterday’s newsie, hawking “The Daily” in zero-degree dark mornings is today’s second-grader, warm and fed and learning to read.
Add music by Alan Menken, lyrics by Jack Feldman, Galvin’s direction, and this musical is witty, intelligent and bombastic. Cardinal’s adult cast is excellent, with some real up-and-comers.
I doubt this is the last we’ll see of the two leads, Julian Diaz-Granados as union organizer Jack Kelly, and newspaper reporter/theater reviewer Katie Scarlett Swaney as Katherine Plummer. These two were made to perform together, and do they ever. The kissing scenes — thank you, director Galvin — pop and sizzle and are the most romantic moments I’ve seen on a Bloomington stage.
Both are wonderful singers, and Swaney has that unusual talent of singing well both in head voice and when belting. I believe she will add Broadway to her resume, as has Diaz-Granados.
Swaney, like Diaz-Granados, is a triple threat. I knew she could dance and kept hoping the role allowed her to show us. It does, and she does. Is there anything this Indiana University performer doesn’t do well?
Cole Winston plays a boy trying to pay bills during his father’s unemployment by selling newspapers in the northeastern chill. He wowed me once again with his stunning voice and ability to sell a song. Jake Stibbe, as Crutchie, Jack’s newsie friend with a limp, is another powerfully effective singer. His Act 2 “Letter from the Refuge” is compelling. Acting-wise, Shawn Syre shone, his malignant Wiesel the news boss a sinister and threatening presence.
As Joseph Pulitzer, Philip Christiansen displayed a delicious arrogance (and humor) along with a velvety baritone. “Whoever said ‘war is hell’ wasn’t trying to sell newspapers,” he asserts. Referring to both his grooming and his newspaper empire, he tells his barber, “Shave it too close, and you may cut my throat.” Isabel Holaday is the madame, Medda Larkin — “Whatever I touch starts to rise” — and she performs a romping “That’s Rich,” with a startlingly good lighting effect at its end.
The adult ensemble danced and sang with verve and bounce; two women cartwheeled across the floor, and each member added energy and drive.
All the songs are well written and offer either plot information or character development, with a few standing out. In addition to the ones mentioned, there are “Santa Fe,” “Watch What Happens,” “Seize the Day,” “King of New York” and “Something to Believe In.”
The disappointment came from the loudness of the orchestra, which overshadowed Feldman’s and Fierstein’s clever words and many of the singers’ wonderful voices. This happens at the Buskirk-Chumley once in a while, and it is a problem that needs somebody to step in and fix. Is the orchestra too big? Too unrestrained? Is it the theater’s sound system, the sound technician? In many places, the writers, performers and audience were robbed of what they deserved: to be heard, to hear. It’s an annoyance that must, somehow, be curable.
As the man next to me mentioned after the show, we often forget Joseph Pulitzer’s dark side. “Unions worked hard for everything they have,” the man said. He is a union-er (CWA), and “Newsies” spotlights the working world.
This “Newsies” also spotlights a — pardon the expression — striking cast.