Monday, October 3, 2011

Double Theatre-tration: Sons of the Prophet and Newsies!

There are two shows you should see as soon as you are able, and they have close to nothing in common. That's a good thing. There's room enough in your heart and brain for both, and each will play on your emotions with a different set of fingers.

One is NEWSIES, a whimsical new Disney musical that necessitates hopping on New Jersey Transit to the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn New Jersey, and one is SONS OF THE PROPHET, a laugh-out-loud, cry-your-face-off play deep in the bowels of the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre / Laura Pels Theatre in midtown Manhattan.

Yes, there is close to NOTHING in common between these two theatrical works, minus the fact that you will thoroughly enjoy each one. Read on for my full reviews.

I saw the new Disney musical adaptation of the critically panned, cult-loved major motion picture NEWSIES this past Friday. It is a non-stop (barring a 15-minute intermission) flurry of fan kicks, splits, cartwheels, backflips, cute hats, rousing anthems and soaring ballads that tears up a stage populated by three, three-floored, steel platforms that slide, spin, come together, split apart, and move with the same energy and ferocity as the large cast that scales and descends them.

This Newsies was adapted by that throaty queen we love to hear through the mouths of others, though not through his own mouth, Harvey Fierstein. It's funny. It's cute. And, most importantly, it keeps on moving from beginning to end with nary a hiccup or belch. The story has been changed but, in my humble opinion, all for the better. The jokes come quick, and don't beg for your laughter. The heart is there, but it doesn't hump you in the face for a reaction.

The twists and turns are not from the original film, but they make you wonder why they weren't. There are a few throw-away lines that should probably be thrown away before the Broadway transfer ("We're gonna tie you up right here, RIGHT ON THIS OLD PRINTING PRESS"... please remove this line). But, all in all, you have a tight and active book that works just as hard as the cast on the stage.

And what a cast. Led by Jeremy Jordan (who will be playing the role of Clyde in the upcoming Wildhorn musical Bonnie and Clyde next season on Broadway... before it inevitably closes after 12 performances, as all Wildhorn musicals since Scarlet Pimpernel tend to do) has a viciously pleasing voice and a killer Bronx accent. Kara Lindsay as Katherine, the reporter who just wants to crack a hard-hitting news piece, and with a family tie that chokes rather than binds has a wonderful solo that tears the theater in two, and takes the solo in "King of New York" as well. She plays the female love interest with a biting wit and a barnstorming feminine independent streak that is both refreshing and probably not historically accurate.

Ben Fankhauser and Vincent Agnello as Davey and Les bring laughs and heart to their performance, and team up well with Mr. Jordan. John Dosset plays a hilariously evil Joseph Pulitzer, but really turns it out in his comic number that comes at just the right moment, so we learn not to take this villain all-too-seriously.

And then there are the other fifty-plus newsies. This show is so full of testosterone, I'm surprised pubic hair didn't start sprouting up from the walls and seats. Think of it as Spring Awakening with more hope and heart, and less chair kicking and angry-jumping. All are strong- voiced and constantly moving. The dance numbers go so far beyond "rousing" that we need a better word to describe them. If anything is an ensemble piece, it's really this show (which makes Jeremy Jordan's solo entrance for the final curtain call, complete with 300 other cast members gesturing in his direction like he's Patti LuPone in Anything Goes, all the more odd).

All your favorite tuners from the show are here, some slightly edited or revised. The new songs fit right in with the existing body, creating a consistent sense of connection that wasn't present between Alan Menken's new and old songs in Disney's The Little Mermaid. The orchestrations are vibrant and rich and exciting. The dancing that accompanies these songs is mostly of the gymnastic variety but, man, can those newsboys move.

Try and sing along, and then wonder why some lyrics were changed. I did! Doesn't really matter, though. The surgery done on the existing songs to fit them into Fierstein's new book was expertly done, as if with a Da Vinci heart operating machine.

When I saw New Rent, they, too, had an industrial set of steel and platforms. They did it the wrong way. Newsies shows you how to do it the right way. The show becomes three floors of excitement and story. Descending projection screens symbolize everything from the streets of the city to a typewriter's page to a Newsies' announcement black board, almost always appropriately. Some technology was probably wasted in the scene where Jeremy Jordan freezes mid-scrawl and the scribbled word "STRIKE" appears on the blackboard, but it's a forgivable overstep.

Oh my God. There is one thing about this show I detested. SOUND PROBLEMS! This is something that New Rent and this show had in common. I don't know what clowns they have running up in the booth, but the mistakes they made throughout the production smack of amateur execution. Each Newsie is individually miked, and it seems like the call book in the tech booth is out of date. I must have lost about 40 or so half-lines from the night to a late-switched-on microphone. THIS IS IMPORTANT TO FIX. Especially in ensemble songs where every Newsie has a sung line. It leaves a classic song sounding like the auditory equivalent of a slice of swiss cheese. FIX. IT. NOW.

See this show. And see it soon. The run ends in 13 days. There isn't a bad seat in the theater, so don't feel a need to splurge on a pricy ticket. The only annoying thing you may find yourself dealing with is the screaming fans in the audience. They've flown here from around the country, and they're either dressed as Newsies and singing along, or they're girls who screech every time Jeremy Jordan saunters on stage with a wisecrack. If you can ignore them, you'll be in for a light, fluffy, kinetic, and super-sweet treat.

Click here for more info on Newsies

I had no idea what I was in for when my friend Mead hooked me and my boyfriend up with free tickets to this play. I knew it was "funny" I knew the material was "sad" and I knew it had Joanna Gleason playing an alcoholic, washed up book editor. Two tickets, please! Needless to say, you probably don't know about SONS OF THE PROPHET, but you really, really should. And you should really see it immediately.

Wow. The play is written by Stephen Karam, who also authored another Roundabout-produced play, SPEECH & DEBATE. You are in for a treat that's going to make you laugh like a fool and cry like a bigger fool. The dialogue is fast-paced and brilliant. The voices are distinct and true.

The story, it turns out, is about two gay brothers and the countless horrors visited on their family: a dead father, a dead mother, a dying uncle, chronic pain syndrome, escalating medical bills, stressed romantic relations... sounds like a downer, right? Guess what? You won't stop laughing for more than a minute and a half throughout the play. Karam succeeds at something that sounds so wrong to begin with: making you laugh at constant, never-ending tragedy. They say you have to laugh at situations like this, otherwise you'll cry... Karam makes that a very easy endeavor.

It's rare that every single member of a cast is spectacular. That is exactly the case here. Joanna Gleason is clueless, sad, and hilarious as Gloria. Santino Fontana ably holds the entire play on his back as gay brother Joseph, keeping it all together until it all comes bursting out towards the end of the show. Yusef Bulos as the bumbling, proud, never-quiet uncle is at turns annoying (when it's intended) and enlightening (most of the time).

Chris Perfertti as younger gay brother Charles is a constant source of guffaws and chuckles, and somehow gays it up without being abundantly flaming. The rest of the cast is, also, powerful and enjoyable. A lot of credit must be given to director Peter DuBois, who keeps the book and play moving at a constantly increasing clip, like you've tripped and fallen into an elevator shaft and the ground is getting closer and closer, quicker and quicker.

Pieces slide in and out on invisible platforms, and two levels are used throughout. You'll even laugh at how the door to a doctor's office so easily transforms to a public restroom at a bus station. Stairs emerge from off-stage as a Quality Inn slips in on the right side. As smooth as the writing and acting in the show, the set is a team player as much as any human being. There always seems to be just enough set to place you where you belong, without a single extraneous contraption to obscure what's important: the relationships that exist, come into existence, and disappear from existence time and time again.

You might cry occasionally while watching SONS OF THE PROPHET, and I won't blame you for doing so. But, for the most part, the tears soaking your eyes will have been driven there by uproarious laughter. The kind that makes it impossible to breathe. This tale of two gay brothers and their god-awful lives is the kind of story that makes you appreciate what you have, because I sincerely doubt ANYONE has it as bad as Charles and Joseph. Seriously. And, if, when faced with pain, we can all sit back in our chairs and LAUGH... isn't that the best kind of artistic medicine?

Click here for more information on SONS OF THE PROPHET

- Justin Luke

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