WOOD RIVER JCT. — Rehearsing their spring production of the Broadway musical "Newsies," the members of the Chariho Theatre Company had an opportunity to spend an afternoon honing their performances with one of the original cast members.
Ben Fankhauser, the originator of the role of Davey, traveled from New York to Wood River Junction to lead a workshop in the Chariho Middle School auditorium with members of the cast.
Based on the true story of the newsboy strike of 1899, the Disney musical made its Broadway debut in 2012 and ran for 1,004 performances before going on tour om 2014. The musical demands acting and singing skills, and especially, dancing. Fankhauser encouraged cast members to take creative risks and use body language to enhance their performances.
“In this workshop, I am hoping to pass on some of my experience from doing the original Broadway production to this group,” he explained. “I’m hoping to pass on an understanding of storytelling and this idea that we can use our whole body to help tell the story and the idea that it takes every single person on stage and backstage to help facilitate the storytelling. And I hope to deepen our understanding of the story, that it's not just song and dance, but it's really quite meaningful and it's an opportunity to give voice to the younger generation who inevitably will be running things soon enough.”
English teacher Rebecca Burns, who directs the production, was contacted by a New York company asking whether the Chariho Theatre Company would be interested in a workshop with one of the cast members. Burns said she immediately chose Fankhauser, but then had to keep his visit a secret until she had a firm date.
“The cast loves him, they admire his work, it’s a once in a lifetime opportunity,” she said. “I had to keep it a secret until all the paperwork went through, so it was so hard to keep it a secret, and then I sat them all down and I told them and they were screaming and so excited. They couldn’t believe it. I have a couple of his biggest fans here.”
Burns said the cast also had an opportunity to chat with Fankhauser about their roles and about acting in general.
Fankhauser spent about three hours with the actors, all of whom were paying very close attention to his instruction.
“I, in the audience, get to choose where I look on stage,” he told the cast. “It's not like in the movies where the directors can tell you what you can and can't see. So, if I decide to look at the upright corner I should be able to know exactly what the story is based on your reactions. So that's what I really what I want to drive home for you guys and I want you to continue to ask all these creative questions of like ‘what am I doing?’ and ‘how can I represent it physically?’ Again, it’s hard work and it's scary work, but you guys are up to the task. Otherwise, you wouldn't be here.”
Freshman Christian Sullivan, who plays Davey, said Fankhauser had helped him to develop a deeper understanding of his character.
"Something I struggle with is smooth transitions, and he helped me plot out Davey's story and his character development to help me do a better job,” he said.
Sophomore Brynn McCarthy, who plays the newsie Specs, said she learned that the ensemble was as important as the individual characters.
Stephen Cannon, a junior, plays the newspaper tycoon Joseph Pulitzer. Cannon admitted being a little nervous acting in front of a professional actor, but said he appreciated the opportunity to ask Fankhauser about the finer points of the production.
"It's a bit nerve-wracking, but it's reassuring because if you're not comfortable with a scene, you can ask him because he's an expert,” he said. “He played Davey on Broadway for 3 years!”
Fankhauser ended the workshop with a pep talk.
“You guys know all the lines, all the choreography, all the scenes and songs and now, it's just about leveling up to the next level and just picking apart the specificities of the story and giving the story real dramatic weight so that it doesn't become just a song and dance opportunity, but it becomes an opportunity to really give voice to something quite important in our world today," he said. "It's not only just an entertaining experience but it’s a meta theatrical experience with something really important to say to the world and to the community.”
Newsies will be presented in the Chariho Middle School auditorium on May 3 and 4 at 7 p.m. and May 5 at 2 p.m. Tickets, which will be available at the door, are $10, and $8 for students and seniors.