Minnesota State University, Mankato has a history of producing many dazzling productions. And when I say “many” I mean it. The college boasts eighteen shows a year, counting their summer stock, their touring children’s musical, and dance concerts. With the school year just starting, the university opened with the Disney musical Newsies.
Newsies is a high-energy musical loosely based on the Newsboy Strike of 1899. he 1899 strike encompassed more than just newsboys, and included other child labourers who were tired of their harsh and unfair conditions. Seems like a wonderful topic for a musical, doesn’t it? First, Disney made it a movie, opening in 1992. The movie’s screenplay was written by Bob Tzudiker and Noni White, with music by Alan Menken (a Disney favorite) and J. A. C. Redford It met with iffy reviews and ultimately flopped at the box office by Disney’s standards. Several years later, however, the story would be revived as a musical.
The musical, with music by song-writing genius Alan Menken, lyrics by Jack Feldman, and a book by Harvey Fierstein, opened on Broadway in 2012. The show, once again, caught mixed reviews from critics. Fans, however, adored it. It was inspirational, and made many children think to themselves, “I can make change happen.” The show was met with nightly sold-out crowds, hundreds of gifts from fans, and a rush line winding around the block. Sadly, the show closed in 2014, playing over 1,000 performances.
This closing, however, brought on a tour and, eventually, amatuer licensing. It’s through these smaller productions that the fans, calling themselves “fanises” still strive strongly. This proved itself in the sold-out weekend Minnesota State University had with its season opener of Newsies. This production marks the regional premiere and audiences are loving the show! When I saw it, at intermission the people sitting next to me were already making plans to see it again!
To me it makes sense--the show brings stellar design and performances together to create something all ages can enjoy. The set, designed by Benjamin J. Krammer, looks wonderful. Made up of mostly scaffolding, it gives the stage a nice “roughed up” quality, perfectly reflecting the conditions these children work in. The lighting, by Steve Smith, breaths life onto the stage and matches the show’s excitement.
The main trio in the show, Jack Kelly, Davey, and Katherine, are played by Mack Spotts, Ryan Joseph Feist, and Arianna Rotty respectively, reach out to the audience and really pull you in. Spotts has a voice like caramel. You’ll love listening to him sing “Santa Fe,” his big number. Feist bares his heart onstage, making you fall in love with his character. Rotty, arguably the stand out of the show, brings both of these qualities to a female lead. You’ll wish there were more actors like Rotty out in the world now.
One thing that caught me off guard was the projections, by Benjamin J. Krammer. Not necessarily because they were fancy or anything new, but because of the simplicity and the usage of real images of the Newsboy Strike of 1899. It made me remember that, behind all this Disney fluff, there is a real truth to this story. It’s a truth that means more today than it did on Broadway.
Just a few days before I saw the show, a child walked in front of adults of the UN and declared “How dare you!” When seen in the light of Greta Thunberg’s actions, this show brought me back to how much the strike reflects today. We have real children today fighting for their rights. Children have the right to inherit a healthy earth, the right to not fear for their lives at school, and the right to be children. That’s exactly what Newsies is about. There is strength where you may not expect it: in children. There were several lines and moments in the blocking, directed by Paul J. Hustoles, that gave me chills for this very reason. The parallels might as well be written in big sharpie.
If you are able to get a ticket, I highly suggest seeing Newsies at Minnesota State University, Mankato. It’s worth seeing the exciting and timely story onstage for yourself. It closes October 6th. You can get tickets here.