By CHARLIE JARRETT
Martinez Gazette Contributor
The Woodminster Summer Musical series production of Walt Disney’s “Newsies” and the California Shakespeare Theater’s production of Bertolt Brecht’s thought-provoking parable, “The Good Person of Szechwan”, are equally stunning and worthy of a “too good to miss” declaration.
In the 1890s and early 1900s, newspapers played a major role in controlling the truth and fiction and dissemination of information throughout our country. This musical (Newsies ) shares with us a glimpse of what life was like for hundreds of immigrant children between the ages of five and 15, who were the children of many poor, uneducated immigrant families. Due in large part to the lack of financial, educational, and medical support for immigrant families, these children were forced to work 10 to 14-hour days known as newsies, so their families could survive.
In 1992 Walt Disney created the Tony award-winning movie musical, Newsies, which was followed in turn by this play. In essence, this story recounted the newsboy strike of 1899, when two of the most powerful newspapers in New York City, the New York World (owned by Joseph Pulitzer) and the New York Journal (owned by William Randolph Hearst) became engaged in what was described as the “first media war” in America. In an effort to raise their profits as effortlessly as possible, the management of these papers raised the cost of their newspapers to the youthful newsies from $0.50 per hundred papers to $0.60 per hundred, a clearly crippling financial burden for those in society least capable of sustaining the cost.
While this play is for the most part fictional, it does relate to actual events of the past. The musical introduces us to a large group of newsboys who rebel at the increase in their cost to pay for and deliver the newspapers, demanding that the owners back down in their demand for more money. The lead actors in a cast of 30+, include Nikita Burshteyn (as newsie Jack Kelly), and Dominic Dagdagan (as a newsie whose nickname is Crutchie), Danny Cancel (as newsie Davey), and Gideon Klapow, who portrays Davey’s little brother, Les. These leads become the de facto leaders of the rebel newsies, refusing to deliver the newspapers for the Pulitzer newspaper. A young lady reporter who also works for the Pulitzer paper (purportedly as a society reporter), Katherine (Amanda Sylvia), teams up with the desperate newsies to help them tell their side of the story on the front page of a newspaper.
Everything about this musical is terrific. The newsies (boys and girls) are highly accomplished dancers, singers, and in some cases professional level actors. It is upbeat and heartwarming. A story that makes its point and even throws in a little romance as well. This show is under the production direction of Joel Slater and music direction by Mark Dietrich, and is performed with live orchestration. The costume coordination by Lisa Danz is superb, as is the lighting design by Jon Gourdine.
Newsies continues at 8 PM on this coming Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday, closing on the 14th. The Woodminster Amphitheater is located in Oakland’s Joaquin Miller Park at 3540 Sanborn Dr., Oakland, CA 94602. Individual tickets range in price from $33-$70 ($5 parking fee) with a number of discounts for seniors, young people 17 to 24 years of age and special group rates. Tickets may be obtained by calling (510 531-9597 or by going to www.woodminster.com, or at the box office at the theater before any performance. Remember to dress in layers as the open-air theater can get downright cold in the evening temperatures of the Oakland Hills.
The Good Person of Szchewan is a play written by Bertolt Brecht between 1938 and 1949. He wrote a parable that extols the virtue of being good and how difficult it can be to find good people who clearly live up to the highest expectations of the people in any society. In his story, three gods descend from heaven in search of at least one good person in China who can fulfill their expectations. They first encounter Wong, a poor and humble water-seller, whom they command to search for and find them shelter for the night. The only person who Wong can find who fulfils that offer is Shen Te, a sex worker, who offers them her bed for the night. Following a much-appreciated stay in her abode (which by the God’s presence, cost her desperately needed income for that night’s work, as her customer quickly departs), seeing her as their sought after good person, they reward her with a substantial sum of money for her kindness and courtesy, and perhaps to help her find another means of income. It seems that if she lives up to their expectation and ultimately succeeds, the Gods confidence in humanity will be restored. With this money she invests in a small business. But once people in her community realize that this former prostitute has become a woman of substantial financial means, their attitude towards her changes and she, because of her kindness to others, is quickly exploited. In order to survive, she creates an alter-ego, a protective cousin, Shui Ta, who is unemotional, pragmatic and even at times, difficult! Can there be a solution in which Shen Te can remain good in spite of her discordant feelings? The story’s question may be, can good and honorable people survive and create a model for a good society in which the desire of the Gods will triumph? The play seems to suggest that economic comfort may determine a society’s morality.
The Good Person of Szchewan is embedded with sadness and frustration, but Director Eric Ting, through the adaption of this play by Tony Kushner, has brilliantly delivered it as a madcap and facial commedia dell’arte theatrical style, making it richly rewarding. The acting is superb on every level. Francesca Fernandez McKenzie superbly delivers the dual characterizations of Shen Te and Shui Ta. At least 9 actors deliver multiple characterizations, often two or 3 each. I wish I had space to deliver all the Kudo’s due them.
This production continues Tuesdays through Thursdays at 7:30 pm, with Friday and Saturday performances at 8pm. A Saturday matinee on July 20th occurs at 2 PM. Sunday matinees will occur at 4 PM, and the grounds open two hours prior to the show time for picnicking. The production closes on July 21st. A café and a full bar are available on site. The theater is located in the Bruns Amphitheater at 100 California Shakespeare Way, Orinda, CA 94563. (Just off Highway 24 at the California Shakespeare theater way/Wilder Road exit, 1 mile east of the Caldecott tunnel.) Tickets range in price are now between $35 and $102, depending on the night of the performance and seating, and are available through the California Shakespeare theater box office, at 701 Hines Ave., Berkeley, CA, by telephone at 510-548-9666 or available online at www.calshakes.org. I strongly urge you to attend this production, as it is superb theater on every crazy level!