Independence Day: Resurgence – Film Review

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A lot can change in twenty years.  During the War of 1996 – that’s how the alien attack of the original Independence Day is now described – the Earth looked like the one in which we all lived.  It was recognizable and relatable.  When those ludicrously massive alien spaceships hovered over major cities of the world, casting giant, dark shadows and looking like a meteorologist’s worst nightmare, it still looked like our world.

Of course, we know what happened next.  Destruction on a global scale, but we won.  Despite all the odds and all of that alien technology used against us, once President Whitemore (Bill Pullman) gave that rousing, patriotic July 4th speech, we rose to the occasion and won.  On independence Day.  Now it’s twenty years later, present day, 2016, and the Earth as we knew it no longer exists.  As presented in the sequel, Independence Day: Resurgence, the rebuilt nation’s capital with its new, unblemished White House and all the gliding, futuristic transport seen floating around looks as though we’re on a different planet.  Or a parallel one.  It’s a sci-fi world of a long distance future.  Plus, there are populated outposts built on the moon and Mars, and Area 51 has become the Earth’s Space Defense headquarters.  That’s a lot of accomplishment in just twenty years.  Exactly where and how did they build all of that stuff?

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A lot has changed for a few familiar faces, too.  David Levinson (Jeff Goldblum) was a tech at a TV cable company, now he’s a director of Earth Space Defense (ESD), naturally.  Jasmine Dubrow (Vivica A. Fox) is no longer a pole dancer in an L.A. nightclub; she’s now a hospital administrator.  Julius Levinson (Judd Hirsch) has written a book called ‘How I Saved The World,’ while President Whitemore (Pullman) has grown a beard and is having nightmares.  And, in case you’re wondering, there’s no Will Smith.  Evidently the actor wanted too much money, so the writer’s promoted his character to that of a colonel and killed him off, though you can catch a glimpse of his portrait hanging in the new White House.

And there are several new faces.  Many.  Too many.  The sequel is considerably shorter compared to the epic 1996 original yet it feels longer and crams in so many new characters, each with their own character conflicts to overcome that it’s practically bursting at the seams.  There’s a new President (Sela Ward), Whitemore’s grown daughter (Maika Monroe), a new scientist providing a love interest for Goldblum (Charlotte Gainsbourg), warlords, new young pilots, all kinds of military generals, and several assorted school kids driven around the desert by Judd Hirsch.  Even the whacky Dr. Okun (Brent Spiner) is revived and immediately ready for action after he awakens from a twenty-year coma; atrophied muscles evidently not a problem.  And we all thought he died.


Unlike the first film where situations were established with more time, more humor and a lengthier buildup to all the action – if you remember, the first laser blast from those enormous ships didn’t occur until somewhere around the forty-five minute mark – this sequel has no time to establish anything.  It zips from one setting to another, throwing in new faces along with the old familiar ones at such lightning speeds you keep forgetting where you are and who is supposed to be who.  And once the alien’s start attacking on this return visit, the spectacle and destruction is mind-bogglingly enormous.  But the problem is, nothing connects.  It’s too much of everything.

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What makes Independence Day: Resurgence doubly disappointing is that the ’96 original was so much fun.  It was genuinely exciting.  That first half with the countdown ticking away that lead to the eventual destruction of our major cities gripped.  It wasn’t just a matter of overcoming conflicts, it was enjoyable story-telling.  And visually the film looked good, as most of the Roland Emmerich directed films do.   Those models and miniatures of the Empire State Building and the White House blowing up in enormous clouds of flame blew audiences away.  It really was the perfect popcorn sci-fi disaster. Now, with nothing but animated CGI replacing the creativity of a special effect, things may look bigger, more spectacular and even weirdly real, but it lacks what’s needed to truly engage.  It lacks life.

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Like many computer generated imagery movies of late –  X-Men: Apocalypse is a good example – Independence Day: Resurgence is yet another in a long line of examples where stuff simply happens and keeps happening until we’re numb.  There’s no excitement, no sense of involvement, and without that emotional connect, there’s rarely a concern for someone if they die in a fight or not.  There’s not even a decent story.  The need to make something bigger and more spectacular than before has resulted with a lack of anything that can now impress.  And nothing is more crushing than going in with all the hope of repeating the fun of what entertained before and coming out with little more than a sense of relief that it’s over.

There was no advance screening for the press.  Now we know why.  If they want to avoid negative reviews they should make better films and not rest on their CGI laurels.  Enough. A sci-fi disaster indeed.

MPAA rating:  PG-13     Length:  119 Minutes     Overall rating:  3 (out of 10)

Posted in Film

Free State of Jones – Film Review

Jones poster

The Jones in the title of the new American civil war drama from writer/director Gary Ross, Free State of Jones, refers not to a character but to Jones County, Mississippi.  This is where real-life, rebellious farmer Newton Knight (Matthew McConaughey) lived.

Jones County is also where Knight, a southerner, lead an armed rebellion against the Confederacy, earning both the respect and the disdain of those around him.  He wasn’t so much fighting for the Union, though his sympathies certainly sided more with the North than the South; he was fighting against the thieving practices of the Confederate soldiers who were basically stealing supplies from the locals.

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With a ragtag, motley crew of deserters and slaves hiding out in the nearby swamp, Knight and his rebel alliance would surprise the thieving soldiers by stealing the hogs and the corn and whatever else they had plundered, and redistributed the supplies back to the farms; a Robin Hood of the American South.

Legal orders allowed the soldiers to take 10% of a person’s belongings in order to feed the army and keep it on its feet.  A visit from the overzealous boys in gray usually resulted with a thorough stripping of all supplies on the farm, leaving local owners – usually women with children while their husbands fought in the war – with almost nothing, resulting with starvation by winter.

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Before establishing that rebellion, Knight had volunteered his services to the Confederate Army, working as a nurse, dodging bullets while pulling wounded bodies off the battlefield and back to the already swamped, bloodied medics.  He may come from the south, but it’s obvious from the conversation he has with others around the campfire, his allegiance is with his personal belief of what is right and wrong, not with the Confederacy.  “We’re all out there dying so that they can stay rich,” he states, referring to the plantation owners.  When a fellow soldier is killed on the battlefield, another soldier remarks, “He died with honor.”  “No, Will,” returns Knight, shaking his head.  “He just died.”

Even though the film runs an already lengthy 139 minutes, the story remains fragmented; it’s as though we’re watching an edited version of something that originally lasted much longer and was cut to a more commercially viewable length.  That’s not to say that what remains doesn’t work – there’s a lot to admire in Ross’ re-telling of this largely unknown but fascinating, real-life story – it’s just that when time jumps, you can’t help wondering what happened during those missing dates.  Imagine a TV mini-series lasting four consecutive evenings trimmed of at least two hours.  At a time when too many recent releases run way too long, here we have an epic length feature that doesn’t feel long enough.  It’s also shot with a standard framed lens rather than a letterbox widescreen, resembling more the look of TV than a big screen epic.

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Still, what remains holds your attention, and as the rebellious Newton Knight, McConaughey’s resurgence continues to rise.   By all accounts, the real Knight was a tall man with a large, towering frame, standing 6-foot-4 with a full beard; a physically imposing character that centered attention by sheer presence alone.  Even if you didn’t agree with him, you didn’t mess with him.  McConaughey, with his gaunt features, slighter frame and whispery, unkempt beard doesn’t necessarily possess the same physical attributes of the Jones County giant, but his calm, determined, unwavering manner of decency in the defense of those wronged feels just as assuring.  He’s the one you want on your side.

When Knight announces Jones County as a free state and declares to his followers the rules, they’re framed as fair, decent and in favor of the people, not for the benefit of the already wealthy.  “No man can stay poor to make another man rich,” he proclaims.  That sense of decency is also extended to the slaves.  “If you can walk on two legs, you’re a man. It’s as simple as that.”

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Curiously, the film introduces a parallel story that takes place some eighty-five years later.  It revolves around a Mississippi court case of what state law unfairly perceives as a mixed-race marriage.  A descendant of Knight’s may or may not have lineage to a black slave named Rachel (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), a woman with whom Knight lived for many years after the war.  The jumps from the 1800’s to the twentieth century court room are not only infrequent, their total length of screen time is in minutes.  The case is compelling enough for audiences to want to know more, but these brief encounters with the 1900’s are so short and seemingly out of place, they feel less like an enhancement of the overall film and more like teasers to another story.  They intrude.  Their removal would not be missed.

Releasing a film like Free State of Jones buried among the mostly adolescent, widescreen summer features may seem as out of place as the inclusion of those brief, twentieth century court room scenes.  But despite its story-telling failings and those unnecessary moments exploring the legality of a mixed marriage, the opportunity of seeing a thoughtful film with adult content, character and a reflection of the human condition that is well-acted and presented with authentic looking, high production values of life during the civil war makes for a welcome relief among all the overstuffed, CGI-laden popcorn pleasers.  Nothing wrong with enjoying those summertime, crowd-appealing special effect adventures, but it’s good to have a choice.

MPAA Rating: R      Length:  139 Minutes    Overall Rating: 7 (out of 10)

Posted in Film

The Neon Demon – Film Review

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As presented in The Neon Demon, the high-gloss, cut-throat setting of the Los Angeles modeling industry is populated with so many despicable, bluntly honest, unfeeling types who treat others like cattle in the worst way, there’s a question you have to ask: Why would any young woman armed with nothing more than a resume and a set of glossy portraits ever want to be a part of that world?  And why subject themselves to such crushing, constant humiliation?

Here’s why.  When you’re aware that you can’t sing, can’t act, possess no real talent, “But I’m pretty,” as young, aspiring model Jesse (Elle Fanning, who is pretty and can act) states, where else is someone with a desire for wealth, success and to always feel like a diamond in a sea of glass supposed to go?  After all, the attention and the feeling of power over others that comes with it are so addictive.

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Hyped as a horror, though more psychologically horrific than the kind of horror some audiences may consider traditional, The Neon Demon is an intentionally slow-paced, well designed peak into a brutal, unforgiving industry.  Teenager Jesse has just arrived in L.A. and from practically the first moment, based on looks alone – there is no other requirement – she makes an impression.  “You,” says model agency head, Roberta Hoffman (Christine Hendricks), “You’re going to be great.”  This from the same woman who after a moment of silent consideration points and coldly tells another aspiring youngster with a folder waiting in her lobby for an interview, “You can go.”

Much to the obvious jealousy of others around her, Jesse is signed to the agency and test shoots with a professional photographer.  “Isn’t she perfect?” asks make-up artist Ruby (Jena Malone).  Ruby appears as though she might be a friend to Jesse.  No one else, particularly the vapid and emaciated Gigi (Australia’s Bella Heathcote) and the equally vapid and foul-mouthed Sarah (real-life Australian model, Abbey Lee) appear particularly friendly.

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When Gigi asks a restaurant waitress what’s on the menu, Sarah asks, “Why?  You’re not going to eat it.”   “But they work so hard to memorize it,” Gigi states with such a condescending tone towards the waitress that you’re forced to ask another question.  Why would the seemingly nice Jesse choose to socialize in the company of these awful people? The answer, of course, is simple.  Given time, not to mention the success that seems to be coming her way, Jesse may ultimately be the same.  When asked how it feels to always be noticed, Jesse replies, “It’s everything.”

With every frame of the film designed as perfectly as a glossy magazine photo-shoot, The Neon Demon will test your patience, and then some.  Presented with a pacing suggesting the world moves in slow-mo backed by Cliff Martinez’s haunting, atmospheric synth score, there’s a sense that something predatory with claws is always lurking off screen, ready to pounce on Jesse and devour her, though, as we’ll later discover, the claws belong to those already seen.

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Once the film’s slow-paced, dream-like rhythm is established, it’s not hard to realize that nothing in The Neon Demon resembles anything remotely like life or the behavior of those in the real world.  When Jesse accidentally cuts the palm of her hand on a shard of broken glass in a dressing, instead of helping her, one of the models tries to suck the blood. And later, when Jesse hears the rape of a screaming and helpless girl in the next apartment, instead of calling the police, Jesse spends time listening with her ear against the wall, then finally calls her friend Ruby asking if she can come over for the night.  And it gets worse.  Once at Ruby’s place, the woman tries to seduce the obviously distraught and vulnerable Jesse into a night of lesbian sex.  When Jesse dismisses Ruby, the woman – who doubles as a make-up artist for cadavers at a funeral home – makes out with a dead body on the slab while imagining how sex might have been with Jesse.

In the way that the cover of an inflated, ad-filled glossy fashion magazine is gorgeously compelling to the eye, so, too, is the look of The Neon Demon.  From the opening credits where twinkling, shiny, gold particles fall like fairy dust in magical slow motion, an immediate tone of glossy attractiveness is set, but the beauty is what you expect and it’s an obvious, superficial one.  So, too, is everything about the film.  Director Nicolas Winding Refn may present his work as something he perceives as serious and artistic with a lesson to be learned – it’s certainly shot that way – but it feels like a sleek, silky and ultimately sick indulgence in personal, sexual fantasy bordering on the ridiculous.  When two models shower together, like many other scenes, it’s filmed in pleasure-seeking slow-mo; the girls luxuriate in the cleansing of their bodies while the camera lingers and does the same.

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There’s no real arc of a story, it’s delivering a message and it’s one so obvious as to be laughable; be careful where you tread, young lady – it’s a dog eat dog world in the L.A. modeling industry and the vapid and emaciated with claws and no discernable talent who ignore the food on a restaurant menu will be forever hungry.

 MPAA Rating: R      Length:  110 Minutes     Overall rating:  3 (out of 10)

Posted in Film

Next to Normal – Theatre Review: Nearly Naked Theatre, Phoenix

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Reviewing a show that is now into its third weekend with only one more to go may feel as though you’ve arrived late to the party, but when several colleagues urge you not to miss Nearly Naked Theatre’s new production of the Broadway rock musical Next to Normal, you pay attention. Running until June 25, Next to Normal is NNT’s final production of its 17th season and more urging is required.  Catch it before the party’s over.  Here’s why.

With deft direction from the theatre’s founder and Artistic Director, Damon Dering, Next to Normal revolves around a mother struggling with bipolar disorder and the effects her illness has not only on her but also on those around her; principally, her family.  When a new day begins and Diana (Johanna Carlisle) prepares lunch for the family, we get our first glimpse of something wrong.

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Diana gets down on her knees and spreads the bread over the floor in one long formation, then slaps the luncheon meat on top of each slice.  She’s a little disoriented.  “I never know what she’s talking about,” declares her husband, Dan (an effectively sympathetic Dave Ray; you feel his pain) as the family readies itself to face another day.

Brutally honest and often upsetting and yet delivered with moments of good humor throughout, writer Brian Yorkey’s book and lyrics incorporate other important themes not often associated with a musical, including drug abuse, suicide, damaging memory loss, grieving, denial  and even questionable psychiatry.  Having lived with this problem for sixteen years, Diana reaches a state where continual medication causes an eventual inability to feel anything.  In her life there are now no highs or lows, just a numbing, medicated state.  With encouragement from her son Gabe (Adam Bei; good presence; great voice) looking over her shoulder, mom pours her pills down the toilet stating, “I miss the mountains.  I miss my life.” You instinctively know that trouble will follow.  And it does. “Do you know what it’s like to die alive?” Diana asks during the heartbreaking You Don’t Know. 

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Like the overall rough-around-the-edges look to NNT’s production, there’s a raw energy to the show that never lets up.  The rock score, with music by Tom Kitt, leaps from one great song to the next with the kind of forceful, emotional punch reminiscent of another rock musical Dering successfully produced in collaboration with Phoenix Theatre a few years back, Spring Awakening.

The pulsating energy behind the songs from this sensational six-member cast is astonishing; voices soar with an operatic force that often comes at you with the full strength of a hurricane.  Backed by an excellent six-piece band under Curtis Moeller’s direction – the program amusingly calls them The Pill-Poppin’ Mamas – each song leaves you as emotionally drained as these characters must feel and the end of every day.   Those with a family member suffering from dementia, Alzheimer’s or a bipolar disorder such as Diana’s will already know the feeling of never-ending despondency that accompanies these debilitating horrors.  Those who don’t should, at the very least, leave with a very real sense of the heartache and burdensome drama that occurs everyday.  The strength of Next to Normal is that despite this being an unlikely and heavy subject for a Broadway musical, the seriousness, as overwhelming as it can potentially be, never weighs things down.  There’s still humor to be found.

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As daughter Natalie (a thoroughly endearing Johnna Watson with a winning appeal for one so young) observes of her likable, weed-loving boyfriend Henry (an equally likable Vincent Pugliese) as he converts an apple into a makeshift pipe, “You’re the MacGyver of pot.”  There’s even a brief and timely ad-libbed Trump reference; evidently, Dering couldn’t resist.  Plus, when Diana starts her first session with a new doctor (an authoritative Brett Aiken with a good voice doing double duty as both of Diana’s doctors) she repeatedly hallucinates for just a second or two, seeing Dr. Madden as an intimidating, screaming rock star who towers over her.  Each time it occurs, Diana’s reaction is priceless, and very funny.

Which brings us to Johanna Carlisle.  At the center of everything is Johanna’s riveting portrayal of a tormented mother. Her emotions run a constant, perverse gauntlet, ranging in every emotion from fear, confusion, a sense of guilt, sometimes anger and a yearning for something normal that will never be hers.  As a performer, she falters occasionally when singing – that mid-range with this score is an issue – but she sells and delivers to the point where you may not notice.  It’s a powerhouse performance, yet despite an unexpected strength behind her character’s frailty, she neither overshadows nor out-performs the rest of the cast, or leaves them behind.  Diana may be the character around whom everyone revolves, but the way director Dering elicits the best out of all of his capable cast, the end result remains that of an ensemble piece; there are no weak links.

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When the show opened on Broadway to great acclaim in 2009 it won three Tony Awards followed a year later by a 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.  The national tour came to ASU Gammage in Tempe, followed by a well-received regional valley production in 2013 at Mesa Encore Theatre.  And yet, with all this exposure, for whatever reason, the average theatergoer remains largely unfamiliar.  That’s why more urging is required.  With a closing date fast approaching, time is of the essence.  Despite a few mic hiccups and a couple of ill-timed lighting cues, this Nearly Naked Theatre production of Next to Normal should be seen.  It works from beginning to end.

Pictures courtesy of Laura Durant

 For more regarding times, dates and tickets, CLICK HERE for NNT’s website

Posted in Theatre

Central Intelligence – Film Review

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Whatever fun there is to be had with the new buddy action comedy Central Intelligence has nothing to do with the action nor the comedy; it’s the buddy role reversal.

Curiously, though interestingly playing against type, Dwayne Johnson is the seemingly crazy one while Kevin Hart plays it relatively straight.  He’s still a motor-mouth but it has less to do with a spitfire delivery of comedic one-liners and more with plain, simple fear.

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Hart plays Calvin Joyner and he’s an accountant, the normal guy with a normal life.  It’s not the one he wanted.  Twenty years ago, back at high school, he was the popular one, the golden boy, the one most likely to succeed.  Now, married to his high-school sweetheart, he’s stuck in an office with the kind of life that offers little other than a regular income.  To make matters worse, despite being really good with numbers, he’s passed over for a promotion.

On the other hand, Johnson’s character, Robbie Weirdicht, has lead the kind of life no one could ever have imagined.  Once the plump, unpopular kid back at high school, bullied and humiliated in front of everyone during a pep-rally, Weirdicht has reinvented himself as someone called Bob Stone.  After working out six hours a day, every day for twenty years straight, he’s now a pumped up, muscles bursting at the seams, CIA undercover agent, and it appears he might be going rogue.

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After twenty years out of senior high, what appears to be an accidental meet-up on Facebook results with a reluctant Calvin and an over-enthusiastic Bob going out for a drink.  That’s when the mechanics of plot begin.  Whether he’s really the bad guy or not, it’s never quite clear, not at first, but for whatever reason, lethal CIA agent Bob intentionally pulls a confused Calvin into the dangerous world of car chases, shoot-outs, secret agents and double-crosses.  Calvin may have been looking for something a little more exciting than accountancy, but dodging bullets wasn’t one of them.  “Take the gun,” Bob instructs Calvin.  “We may have to kill some people.”

Both Johnson and Hart are likable performers.  They’re not necessarily great actors but they’re good and getting better, plus audiences warm to them, which is why this role reversal of types is so amusing. But the film has issues, several, and they have nothing to do with the two leads.

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With all kinds of dangerous looking double-crossing agents in pursuit of Bob, who himself might be on the wrong side of things, everyone, good or bad, is at risk, including innocent bystanders and anyone else who stands in the way.  Amy Ryan is the unsympathetic and ruthlessly determined CIA agent whose tactics to get what she wants are so merciless and threatening you have to pray there’s no one actually like her working in the government protecting the country.  If the kind of bullying and threats she uses on the innocent to get what she wants is CIA business as usual, heaven help us.

Of course, this is a comedy, and characters do outrageous and unlikely things in broad, larger-than-life sweeps to get the laughs, but in Central Intelligence, once the dust is settled and all truths and character identities are finally revealed, if you take the time to look back, you’ll probably say, now wait a minute.  Events are so elaborate and convoluted, they’re borderline bizarre, like a deliberately over-engineered Rube Goldberg machine constructed to present something simple but in the most intentionally complicated way possible.

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Plus, the effective moments of humor are not so much the thrills and spills of violent action nor Calvin’s comically fearful reaction to them but the several movie references.  Big man Bob, besides a love for unicorns and hugging everyone, has a thing for both Patrick Swayze’s Road House and Molly Ringwald’s Sixteen Candles.  When he asks Calvin if he’s seen the famous 1984 brat-pack comedy, Calvin responds with, “I’m black, so…”  And when Calvin calls his wife Maggie (Danielle Nicolet) to assure her there’s nothing to worry about, she asks, “Is everything alright, ‘coz you sound like Ray Liotta at the end of Goodfellas.”

But among all the shootings, car wrecks, the occasional scene of torture and blood spilling – someone blows up in a see-thru elevator, his body parts splattered over the glass, and it’s repeated in flashbacks – Central Intelligence is not nearly funny enough no matter how entertaining Johnson and Hart can be.  What humor exists is ultimately strangled by an overly complex plot full of violent action.  It doesn’t work as well in a comedy, and when it’s for the laughs that most will be paying to see, the film has a problem bigger than any conflict the likable leads have to face.

 MPAA Rating:  PG-13   Length:  114 Minutes    Overall Rating: 5 (out of 10)

Posted in Film

Newsies the Musical – Theatre Review: National Touring Production, ASU Gammage, Tempe

Newsies poster

It’s odd to think that a flop Disney movie musical with so many derisive, negative reviews would later become a hit on Broadway; it’s usually the other way around.  But when you consider the film’s cult following that later developed once it was released for the home market, maybe not.  Fans of Newsies (re-titled The News Boys overseas) are so devoted that any word of criticism is often met with public, on-line retaliation.  Critics beware.

Based on a real event that occurred in 1899, Newsies the Musical took the movie musical, re-shaped it, cut a few songs, added more, cut a couple of characters, including the lead character’s love interest, Sarah, and added a new one called Katherine.  The difference in reception to the live show as opposed to the film was staggering.  Disney’s Newsies the Musical didn’t win all the reviewers over, but due to overwhelming box-office interest, what was intended to be a limited run on Broadway was extended.  It ran from 2012 to 2014.  Within a couple of months, a national tour was already on the road.   Now the tour has arrived in the valley, playing at ASU Gammage in Tempe until Sunday, June 19.  Judging from the overwhelmingly loud roar of approval that filled the auditorium once the first note of the overture began, many of those cult followers have traveled and arrived with it.

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Tailored from the same cloth as the 19th century New York fictional characters, The Dead End Kids and The Bowery Boys, the Newsies of the title are, as intrepid reporter Katherine (Morgan Keene) describes them, a ragtag gang of ragamuffins.  They’re the newspaper boys of NYC; tough and in your face, possessing names like Mush, Specs, Race and Crutchie, who tawk the streetwise tawk.  Each morning they buy their allotted amount of papers, or papes, then sell them on the streets.  “This is so much better than school,” declares one of the younger newsies.

The villain of the piece is the publisher of the New York World, Joseph Pulitzer, the man who began the technique of yellow journalism – screaming headlines – to sell a story.  When a character declares, “Anyone who doesn’t act in his own, self-interest is a fool,” and says it without an ounce of empathy for those affected, you know he’s the villain.  Pultizer (an authoritative and suitably commanding Steve Blanchard) raises the price of his paper.  The delivery boys revolt.

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Those streetwise, ragamuffins – some are orphans, some are homeless, all are broke and desperate – are lead by the charismatic young Jack Kelly (Joey Barreiro), and it’s Jack who organizes the boys into a union.  With the New York juvenile detention center on their backs, the striking boys hide out in a nearby music hall theatre.

More than anything, it’s the ever-moving set design that impresses.  Designer Tobin Ost has created a New York full of metallic ladders and multi-layered balcony’s representing everything from tenement buildings to factory gates that slide smoothly around the stage, constantly recreating new areas of the city to explore while looking like the world’s biggest jungle-gym for the boys to climb.  It’s extremely striking.

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Then there’s Christopher Gattelli’s high-energy and exhausting choreography that has the boys leaping, flipping, somersaulting, pirouetting and practically assaulting the audience with climactic military lines and formation, and always culminating with the defiant look of solidarity and clenched fists in the air.  If the dancing, as accomplished and as breathtaking as it often looks, starts seeming the same from one ensemble production piece to the next, particularly in the first half, then so do the songs.

While Jack Feldman’s lyrics are expressive and often clever and Howard Menken’s music is undeniably tuneful, those newsie production pieces all start looking and sounding like echoes of each other.  Only uncritical cult followers thoroughly familiar with the score will distinguish one song from the other, while those new to the show will have a tough time telling them apart.  With titles like Carrying the Banner, Seize the Day and Once and for All, they’re not so much songs, more inspiring anthems of solidarity.  And they keep coming.  Plus, with a score as intentionally loud and as rousing as this, voices often feel as though they’re in competition with the volume of the orchestra.

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Unlike many musicals, Newsies finds its narrative strength in the second half more than the repetitive first.  Once characters are established and the strike is in place, the second half not only resolves the setup of the first but presents new character conflicts, a solid power ballad between Jack and Katherine, and a character identity reveal that produced an audible gasp of surprise from a packed opening night house, and presumably from the non-cult followers unfamiliar with plot twists.

Despite its several issues and the fact that a full-blown musical was based around a relatively minor historical incident, the show remains by design a determined crowd-pleaser.  Like the screaming headline that blazed daily across the front page of a Pulitzer paper, the whole production is a musical equivalent.  By the end, you’ll automatically leap to your feet with wild applause at the conclusion of that final, fist-raising anthem of youthful solidarity ringing in your ears, even if later you look back and you’re not quite sure why.

For more regarding times, dates and tickets CLICK HERE for the official ASU Gammage website.

Posted in Theatre