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Highly Recommended! Seize the Day

Highly Recommended!

Disney’s 2012 stage adaptation of their 1992 cult movie musical unexpectedly took Broadway by storm. The musical earned Tony and Drama Desk Awards for its athletic choreography and contemporary score and has, because of a brilliant National Tour, become a huge hit all over America. At the much-respected Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire we have Chicagoland’s first professional, regional, homegrown production. Staged in-the-round by gifted master, Alex Sanchez, this production is first-rate. It’s energetic, beautifully acted and sung and, possibly its biggest selling point, choreographically transcendent.

Audiences of all ages will be dazzled; but for every middle and high school-aged girl attending this musical, which has the appearance of a plot-driven boy band concert, the Marriot’s production is also a teenage dream. Incidentally, this musical teaches a lesson in American history while illustrating the importance of unions for the average worker, a concept probably not on the minds of most teenagers.

Based upon the events that led up to New York City’s Newsboys’ Strike of 1899, Disney Theatricals brought back the film’s original composer, Alan Menken (“Aladdin,” “Beauty and the Beast”) and lyricist Jack Feldman to skillfully flesh out the movie score for the stage. They hired Harvey Fierstein to rewrite the screenplay, keeping the same plot but creating a few new characters making the dialogue sound fresh and new. The show originally previewed to favorable reviews at Paper Mill Playhouse in 2011, and then moved to Broadway a year later for a limited run. It proved to be an overwhelming success, recouping its initial investment faster than any Disney stage musical, and was eventually given an open run. Now the rest of the country will be able to enjoy this thrilling, vivacious show in a score of regional productions, such as the one at the Marriott.

The Windy City’s own premiere production is directed and choreographed with power and spirit by gifted and multi Jeff Award-nominated Alex Sanchez. Mr. Sanchez recently turned Marriott’s “Evita” into a breathtaking, magnificent wonder. He’s achieved the same success with this new production. The show’s just as electrifying and captivating as the Broadway version but, because the audience is closer the stage, it feels more far more intimate.

Musically directed by Ryan T. Nelson with his usual expertise, and accompanied by Patti Garwood’s rich, brassy eight-member pit orchestra, this show bursts with brilliance. Staged within Kevin Depinet’s clever scenic design, Sanchez takes the audience from the gritty streets of New York’s Lower Eastside, up onto the tenement fire escapes; then we enter a glittering vaudeville house and then into the office of newspaper publisher, Joseph Pulitzer. To wit, this version doesn’t scrimp on production values. Sally Dolembo’s period costumes reflect the newsboys’ poverty while providing an array of gorgeous turn-of-the-century suits and dresses for the show’s adult men and leading ladies.

The show’s main character, Jack Kelly, the leader of the Newsboys’ strike against Joseph Pulitzer, is played with spunk and determination by Patrick Rooney. His portrayal of this determined ringleader is grounded, heartfelt and honestly authentic. Rooney brings a gorgeous voice and a tetchy, restless quality that serves him well in this story about an everyday David taking on a powerful Manhattan Goliath. He’s matched by lovely Eliza Palasz as Katherine, the fledgling, feminist news columnist who supports the Newsboys’ cause and ends up falling for Kelly. Ms. Palasz is scrappy and sassy and ready to mix it up with the boys, while demonstrating she’s both a terrific hoofer as well as a fine vocalist. Ms. Palasz’s powerful musical monologue, “Look What Happens,” excites just as much as the show’s highly energetic choreographed numbers.

In supporting roles, Matthew Uzarraga, whose bright, innocent face immediately provides an empathetic connection with the audience, is terrific as Crutchie. Chicago audiences have watched Matthew grow up on stage. Here he’s at once heartbreaking and inspiring in this role. His beautiful singing carries much of the show, like his harmonic duet with Rooney in “Santa Fe” and his poignant solo, “Letter From the Refuge.”

Nick Graffagna is wonderful as Davey. Another excellent singer and dancer, Mr. Graffagna brings an earnest, sharply intellectual quality to his character that makes Davey a very likable fighter for rights and a perfect second in command for his new friend, Jack Kelly. Broadway actress Stephanie Pope is delicious as Medda Larkin, the beautiful, boisterous, buxom burlesque performer, with a soft spot for Jack and his cause. She sees the boy’s hidden talent as a visual artist and not only encourages his creativity but pays him for his paintings. Ms. Pope brings down the house with her show-stopping number, “That’s Rich.” Kevin Gudahl is appropriately pompous and evil as the show’s villain, Joseph Pulitzer. His power-hungry editor of The World, one of New York’s top newspapers at the turn-of-the-century, is restrained and never becomes a caricature. Mr. Blanchard delivers his number, “The Bottom Line,” with arrogant authority and tells the audience everything they need to know about this nasty bureaucrat.

With their astounding amount of musical and choreographic skill and talent, this show’s dynamic ensemble are the true stars of this production. Featuring a stellar cast of 29 triple-threats, they make the rafters ring with songs that send the audience back home humming. Some of these include the beautiful ballad, “Santa Fe,” as well as so many rousing, robust production numbers like, “King of New York,” “Carry the Banner,” “The World Will Know” and the dynamic and encouraging “Seize the Day.”.

Just in time for the holidays, Chicago’s own peppy, powerful production is an exciting confection that offers, as a bonus, a little history lesson and a sound message about fighting for your rights. Marriott’s show will appeal to audiences of all ages and is guaranteed to send theatergoers out of the theatre singing and dancing. If you’ve never seen the cult film that inspired this theatrical musical, or the filmed LA stage production that can be downloaded, this live stage production will thrill. Santa’s arrived early for Chicago theatergoers, but this year he’s carrying a newspaper bag filled with some highly-charged holiday treats.