Newsies: Ed Mirvish Theatre in Toronto

The National Newsies Tour, affectionately called “Toursies”, hits the nail on the head in Toronto when it comes to a fun, lighthearted show to fill your evening, but sometimes fails to take its audience seriously.

If this production could be described in one word, it would be the following: dynamic.

No matter what the mood, what the moment, nothing ever quite stops moving: the set, the story, and certainly not the incredible dancers that perform the shows greatest moments.

Newsies tells the story of Jack Kelley (Dan DeLuca), a young boy leading the newsboys of New York City in a strike against bigwig Joseph Pulitzer (Steve Blanchard) with the help of budding yet undervalued reporter Katherine Plumber (Stephanie Styles).

The choreography, of course, is what this show is known for. Christopher Gattelli nagged a Tony in 2012 for his (once again, dynamic) choreography inspired by both classical ballet and classic Golden Age Broadway (along with the obligatory, yet still inspiring tap number). The incredibly talented young performers in the big dance numbers have no limit to their energy, with their nonstop pirouettes, backflips, jumps, and splits. In a way, Newsies is part musical, part acrobat show. I can hardly imagine breathing while doing these moves, never mind singing!

Jack and Davey (Jacob Kemp), the two main newsies who lead the boys in song and rebellion, are of course cleverly run offstage during each big dance number. Despite his apparent lack in dance skills, Dan DeLuca’s Jack is (again) very dynamic. He captures the restlessness of adolescence as well as being cheeky, creating an endearing character. Stephanie Styles as Katherine absolutely nails her big number, “Watch What Happens”. It’s an unimaginably tricky song, both singing-wise and acting-wise, with a quick patter verse and high notes that leave you breathless. However, every syllable she utters is perfectly clear, and she masterfully switches from one emotion to the next, stream-of-consciousness style. Jacob Kemp brings new light to the character of Davey, singing his parts with a strong, confident voice, although still managing to capture the character’s insecurity.

Alan Menken’s score is mostly fantastic; he wrote powerful anthems for the most important scenes of the show, although some pieces come across as a little too “Disney”. The love duet between Katherine and Jack, “Something to Believe In”, especially seems to have been taken from the Disney formula book. Cheesy lines, a predictable structure – knowing Menken, he could have done much better. But his big numbers – “The World Will Know”, “Seize the Day”, “Once and For All” – are audience-rousing anthems.

Harvey Fierstein’s book is perhaps the weakest part of the show. It’s peppered with supposedly clever quips, but the laughter from the audience is missing. Whether this is the actors’ fault of the book’s fault is not certain, but the audience isn’t much impressed. The empty pauses for laughter press down hard on the show’s light mood.

However, this lightness isn’t exactly a strong point. Fierstein fails to show any of the darker side of the very serious issue of child labour. He chooses instead to focus on the fraternity between the newsboys. It’s a nice sentiment, but it perhaps hints at a slight condescension toward the audience. What, the audience can’t handle a few darker moments as well as the flips and splits?

Still, the book, along with every other aspect of this production, doesn’t leave the audience room to breathe. The set is engaging and never quite seems to sit still. The use of projection, a technique I don’t usually take seriously, was clever in this piece in its simple, monochromatic, news-like pictures and print. In such an energetic show, I was very fond of the subdued lighting. Everything is white, black, and blue, and it looks gorgeous.

Somehow, the production didn’t seem to infuse the audience with as much energy as it did me. Tough crowd, I suppose. I was the only one cheering and whooping after every big number, ecstatic compared to the polite clapping of those around me. But really, how was I the only one fully ready to give a standing ovation after the supposed showstopper, “Seize the Day”? Newsies, I hope you’ll have better luck elsewhere.

The Newsies National Tour will continue its run through North America after it leaves Toronto at the Ed Mirvish Theatre on August 30.

Kinky Boots: Royal Alexandra Theatre in Toronto

Kinky BootsAlthough Kinky Boots misses many high notes, the high energy songs and Toronto’s exuberant cast at the Royal Alexandra Theatre in Toronto leaves the audience grinning from start to finish.

There were many reasons why I wanted to see the musical Kinky Boots: primarily because of the attention it’s gathered since its Tony-award-winning debut on Broadway in 2013, but also because of my interest as a trans ally who was curious to dissect it for its thoughts on gender expression and identity. I had the pleasure of seeing the Toronto production just last night, and there’s no denying it was a fun performance, with toe-tapping melodies and jaw-dropping acrobatics by men wearing six-inch heels.

Kinky Boots tells the story of Charlie Price (Graham Scott Fleming), recent heir to a failing shoe factory, who takes the risk of turning to a niche market to save the factory and its workers: that of drag queens. With the help of Lola (Alan Mingo Jr.), fabulous London queen, and Lauren (AJ Bridel), quirky factory worker turned partner with an infatuation for Charlie, they take on the design and creation of a line of extravagant boots strong enough to support the weight of grown men in time for a Milan fashion show.

The actors were obviously having a blast performing this high-energy show, and it was hard not to be taken in with their enthusiasm. Lola and her Angels most certainly stole the show with their high kicks, high heels, and high notes. There was no end to their energy as they pranced around the stage, singing and dancing in their skimpy, shiny costumes and satisfactorily overwhelming makeup. Be prepared for lots of glitter, folks; lots of glitter and lots of red. The colour of both their costumes and their characters perfectly contrasted with the drab Northampton shoe factory, all monochromatic set-wise goes until Lola settles in.

Graham Scott Fleming seemed to settle into his role as Charlie as the night went on; his insecurity is cute, endearing, and his voice strong in the soaring melodies. However, Charlie as a character was the weakest in the show. He has no ambitions of his own, no real desires, and his main character arc involves “learning to accept people as they are”. Yet another story about a white, straight, cisgendered man being applauded for accepting a queer person. In a way, Lola’s only use as a character is to develop Charlie’s character. Not a great comment for a show that claims to be breaking barriers on Broadway.

Harvey Fierstein’s book is the show’s weak point. A hastily-added, hastily-resolved romantic subplot between Lauren and Charlie, problematic quips about gender identity (“Ladies, gentlemen, and those who have yet to make up their mind.” Reinforcing the gender binary much, Harvey?), and a weaker second act are all on the agenda. In fact, the conflict in act 2 seems entirely contrived, with an argument between small-minded factory worker Don and Lola taking up much of the act, as well as the obligatory “accepting people for who they are” spiel.

ABC News called Cyndi Lauper’s score “the best Broadway score in years”, a statement with which I have to disagree. As a fun, energetic score by a beloved pop writer, it was great. Only when Lauper tried to imitate the typically flashy Broadway sound did it almost drift into pastiche. Her opening number in particular is bland, your typical formulaic opening number to introduce the cast. But it’s when she falls back into her niche genre, 80’s pop music, that the music soars. Songs like “History of Wrong Guys” (performed by the hilarious AJ Bridel and the only redeeming element of Obligatory Romantic Subplot) could easily have been performed at one of her concerts. Perhaps they’re not the strongest musically, but you can certainly tell that these songs were fun to write and remain fun to perform.

Despite Fierstein’s problematic book and underdeveloped characters and message, and Lauper’s often predictable score, the high energy of the show and the big numbers featuring Lola and her angels (including the optimistic end anthem about supporting those who are different) left me grinning for the rest of the night. But ultimately, Kinky Boots tells the story of just another privileged white guy who makes the astonishing, life-changing decision to indeed not be a capitalist asshole.

Kinky Boots will continue its extended run at the Royal Alexandra Theatre in Toronto, Ontario until November 8, 2015.