Musicals, Big and Small | Arts & Entertainment | Salt Lake City | Salt Lake City Weekly

Musicals, Big and Small 

Two very different emotional beats for two new musical productions.

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click to enlarge TODD KEITH
  • Todd Keith

Strictly speaking, Newsies is a musical, and a delightfully entertaining one. In another sense, it's a dance performance so exhilarating, it's practically an athletic competition.

Of course, it's silly to separate the components of a rousing production like this. There's a winningly old-fashioned quality to the Disney-fied telling of the 1899 New York newsboys strike, with a fictionalized character named Jack Kelly (Jonathan Shew) leading his fellow newspaper delivery boys in an action against publishers raising rates in a way that exploits their largely underage labor force. And there's even room for a modest exploration of women entering the work force, in the character of aspiring reporter Katherine (Nadia Vynn), which doesn't exist in the 1992 movie version but here gives rise to the funniest single tune, "Watch What Happens."

That song and all of the others—by Disney stalwart composer Alan Menken and lyricist Jack Feldman—are effectively rousing, although there's an awkward attempt to create a show-stopper out of Jack's earnest "I want" number "Santa Fe" that feels out of place with the rest of the show's tone. Its crowning glory, however, are the two centerpiece production numbers, which director/choreographer Karen Azenberg and her gifted ensemble turn into breathtaking displays of acrobatic precision. While the first act nears its close with the explosive performance of "Seize the Day," the second act gets a pulse-quickening kick-off with "King of New York," in dance numbers that somehow weave in a musical interlude with spoons and water-filled glasses. It's the kind of work that leaves a spectator's mouth agape.

The narrative itself is in some ways merely serviceable, mixing plucky orphans, a mismatched love story and a greedy businessman for something that might feel straight out of a 1930s Hollywood genre piece. Sure, it's satisfying in 2017 to see a tale in which standing up to grasping corporate interests actually results in a happy ending, but Harvey Fierstein's book isn't exactly breaking new storytelling ground.

And it doesn't particularly matter, when you've got a talented cast in fine voice, giving the story their gee-whiz best. All that, plus a chance to watch the intricate moves of phenomenal dancers, bringing the kind of showmanship that's not surprising to see has to burst into the aisles.

click to enlarge BLAKE YELAVICH
  • Blake Yelavich

Give Utah Repertory Theater Co. and director Johnny Hebda credit: While stage musicals are often associated with grand theatricality, their shows have become case studies in how songs in a smaller space can create a powerful emotional connection.

What was true of Utah Rep's spring production of Kiss of the Spider Woman is true again for The Bridges of Madison County, the stage adaptation of Robert James Waller's 1992 tearjerker by playwright Marsha Norman and composer/lyricist Jason Robert Brown. In broad strokes, the story remains the same: In 1965 Iowa, Francesca Johnson (Erin Royall Carlson)—an Italian war bride living with her husband and two children on their farm—finds herself longing for something more after 18 years of rural domesticity. And while the rest of the family is away at a fair with the prize steer, she connects with Robert Kincaid (Kevin Goertzen), a National Geographic photographer visiting to chronicle the area's picturesque covered bridges.

Initially, there are bumps in adjusting to this interpretation of the material. Norman scraps the novel's framing structure of Francesca's now-adult children finding her diaries, removing the context of them discovering how much she sacrificed for them. It's also a paradigm shift for taciturn manly-man Robert to become someone who bursts into song to express his emotions.

But the latter difficulty is erased entirely by Goertzen's performance, which finds a more complex arc for a guy who could easily feel like a housewife's improbable romance-novel fantasy. He brings a hushed quality to his line readings that is beautifully offset by his powerful voice, and he gets a tremendous partner in Carlson, whose performance is just as versatile both in silence and in song.

Those Sondheim-esque compositions by Brown—ranging from the frisky humor of "State Road 21" to the heartbreaking ballads like "Falling into You"—are the story's heartbeat, yet what makes them soar is the efficiency with which Hebda and company make use of a black-box theater space to tell this story. The mobile walls of the Johnson kitchen create a fittingly constricting feel for Francesca's life, which opens out into the tender moments near the bridge (conveyed simply by a pair of ladders). The source material might be chided for its melodrama, but this version cuts to the heart of a kind of heroism in simple lives—and it all feels so personal, you could almost reach out and touch it.

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