Newsies Is Good Entertainment: Weekend Theatre Roundup


Newsies at Theatre Memphis.
  • Newsies at Theatre Memphis.
What does it mean when a musical about newspapers and unions is way more popular than newspapers and unions? I honestly don’t know. And I don't really know where to start with my review of Theatre Memphis’ production of Newsies other than to say it’s a technically outstanding interpretation of the famously failed Disney film that found a more natural home on Broadway. The ensemble is first rate. The singing soars. The choreography is energetic and stunty. The kids (and baby-faced grownups) playing the “Newsies” are especially good and John Hemphill and Kent Fleshmen make perfect comic and villainous foils.

What’s not to love?

For me, it’s the irony. See, striking newspaper delivery kids were they primary means of distribution for afternoon papers. Their after-school labor helped to make Joseph Pulitzer very rich. Although the strike did win the newsies some concessions, they are all still crushingly poor when the curtain comes down. They’ll be paid no more for their labor. They still have to invest more up front. They still take a hit on every paper they sell. But Pulitzer, knowing a good deal when he hears it, subsidizes their risk and incentivizes productivity by agreeing to buy back unsold issues. Although the result was favorable and the Newsboy strike is an important moment in American labor history, in the post-labor 21st century it’s hard to see Newsies as anything but nostalgia. Or a cynical artifact of American capitalism celebrating values and systems we don’t officially like anymore. Values and systems our elected representatives had been busy starving and stamping out for more than a decade by the time Disney released the original flop film in 1989.

To be fair, Disney grabbed good headlines recently for making $15/hour the new minimum wage in its parks. It’s a good, overdue decision that’s earned praise from affiliated unions that, though diminished, continue to press for better wages and working conditions. Well, from the unions MouseHouse hasn’t stealth-busted, anyway.

Theatre Memphis’ Newsies got a well-deserved standing ovation opening night, but looking around at all the gray hair, pale faces, conservative suits and Marsha Blackburn supercuts, I couldn’t help but wonder what this demographic was clapping for. It couldn’t possibly be for a story about disruptive, production-choking protest. The Newsboy strike famously shut down a bridge, after all, and we all know how Memphis’ privileged classes feel about that sort of thing. Maybe they were just applauding the unpaid talent sweating guts out to entertain? Or depictions of the use of law enforcement as the strong arm of big business, quelling dissent and making compromise more appealing? Or the plebe-appeasing triumph of capital inherent in the musical’s happy ending? Or maybe it was just habit.

See, in the current political and economic environment a proper telling of this story shouldn’t entertain, it should incite.

Allow me to double down on my opening comments. Theatre Memphis’ Newsies is perfect and polished in the ways musicals at the East Memphis playhouse often are. Fans of the film, and earlier iterations of the stage show won’t be disappointed. Voices are strong, the acting is professional and featured dancers (high) kick ass. Costumes are appropriate and scenic and lighting elements serve the material well. Even if the book and music underwhelm, the production may yet inspire.

That’s not nearly enough, but I’ll take it.
Junk continues...

For a different take on business in America, Junk continues its run at Circuit Playhouse. From the Review...

To build on an idea put forward by addict/philosopher William S. Burroughs, Junk needs swagger like a junkie needs junk. It also needs the raw, biological urgency of addiction. Though Ayad Akhtar's script is a trope-eschewing, drug-free zone compared to most mythic tales of corporate greed in the 1980s, Circuit Playhouse's earnest production joneses hard for the wild eyes and religious fervor so vividly described in the play's opening moments.

We've seen stories like Junk before. Salesmen, The Maysels Brothers 1969 documentary about door-to-door Bible peddlers, was a study in the rich, racist language of predatory business in America. That inspired David Mamet's prescient real estate drama, Glengarry Glen Ross. The Wolf of Wall Street was a blurry, sweat and semen-drenched Polaroid of excess and, in a similar post-party vein, The Big Short was quirky, disruptive, and as entertaining as it was educational. On stage, there's been Enron and Serious Money and I can't believe I almost forgot to mention Gordon Gekko's succinct "Greed is good," monologue from 1987's Wall Street, an original period artifact that's still as quotable as it ever was. But Junk, the story of game-changing junk bond king Robert Merkin, has no use for quirk, color, or succinctness. It's all sprawling sincerity and shades of gray with one thing logically following another with all the intrigue and suspense of a single-file domino tumble. Junk's script leans on narration, biasing "tell" over "show," and Circuit's translation from page to stage does little to correct the imbalance.  (Continue reading).
Hattiloo takes a look at the "school to prison pipeline" with the play Pipeline.

From press materials: 
"Nya, an inner-city public high school teacher, is committed to her students but desperate to give her only son Omari opportunities they’ll never have. When a controversial incident at his private school threatens to get him expelled, Nya must confront his rage and her own choices as a parent."
•The popular musical Nunsense opens at Germatown Community Theatre.
•Emerald Theatre Co. presents Gaydar, its third annual original 10-minute play festival
•Tennessee Shakespeare opens Two Gentlemen of Verona. This is also the best bargain in town thanks to Tennessee Shakespeare's Free Shakespeare Shout-Out Series which kicks off this month with 11 performances in nine different indoor and outdoor locations. It's a 75-minute show and no tickets or reservations are required.
•Quark Theatre opens The Typographer's Dream at Theatre South. You can read the preview here. 

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