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Zachary Podair

By Melissa Arnold

Whether you’ve been playing carols for weeks or are just now contemplating putting up the tree, the end of Thanksgiving signals the official arrival of the holiday season. If this is the most wonderful time of the year in your house, there’s no better way to enjoy it than by catching “Elf`The Musical” at the John W. Engeman Theater in Northport.

Based on the beloved 2003 film starring Will Ferrell, “Elf” tells the story of a little boy who crawls into Santa’s gift bag and ends up at the North Pole. Raised as an elf, the ever-growing Buddy has no idea he’s really human, even though he’s a terrible toymaker. When Buddy learns the truth about his identity, he sets out on a journey to New York City to reconnect with his roots and find his family.

Insulated by the always cheery atmosphere of Christmastown, it’s an understatement to say Buddy faces culture shock upon arriving in the Big Apple. But it will take a lot to keep Buddy from spreading Christmas cheer, especially to the person that needs it most: his Scrooge-y father.

“Elf” made its Broadway debut in 2010 with book by Bob Martin and Thomas Meehan and music by Michael Sklar and Chad Beguelin. Devoted fans of the film will appreciate the show’s faithfulness to the original script, including Buddy’s classic one-liners that make it so iconic. The musical numbers aren’t especially memorable and feel unnecessary at points, but they do open up the opportunity for some great dance routines.

The production begins with Santa (Gordon Gray) inviting the audience to join him as he reads the story of Buddy the Elf. There’s something so fun about these moments that allow actors to interact with the crowd and draw viewers in. And the little details in Santa’s scenes (his oversized chair with a bag of Doritos and the remote control stuffed in the cushion) feel genuine and cozy. Gray’s portrayal of Santa is effortless, funny and truly believable — his belly laughs will make you wonder if he’s the real deal.

Erik Gratton is no stranger to the role of Buddy. He also starred in the national tour of “Elf” and last year’s Madison Square Garden production. While it’s hard to shake off the image of Will Ferrell in that famous green hat, Gratton leaves it all on the stage with tons of energy and all the zany enthusiasm Buddy deserves. His first experience and subsequent obsession with a paper shredder will have you in stitches. It’s also worth noting that he approaches the show’s rare emotional moments with surprising tenderness. Gratton will break your heart at the end of the first act during “World’s Greatest Dad (Reprise).”

After fantasizing endlessly about what life with his dad will be like, Buddy meets his overworked, agitated publisher father, Walter Hobbs (Joe Gately). Tension rolls off Gately in waves, and when Hobbs loses his temper, Gately fills the theater with powerful, roaring tirades. He’s a wonderful foil to Christianne Tisdale and Zachary Podair, who play Hobbs’s wife Emily and young son Michael. Tisdale and Podair have great chemistry as mother and son, and their duets in “I’ll Believe in You” and “There Is a Santa Claus” were personal favorites.

Of course, Buddy’s life is further turned upside down when he finds himself smitten with a beautiful, yet world-weary Macy’s employee, Jovie (Caitlin Gallogly). Gallogly is delightfully edgy and jaded for the majority of the show, making her character’s eventual thawing that much more enjoyable. She also has one of the strongest voices in the cast, and her vocals in “A Christmas Song” and “Never Fall in Love With an Elf” are a treat for the ears.

The ensemble in “Elf” has several different roles to play, from elves in Santa’s workshop to retail employees and bitter mall Santas. They deserve major props for their elf scenes — since elves are tiny, the actors perform on their knees. It’s no small feat to sing and dance to “Christmastown” from that position!

Choreographer Mara Newbery Greer and associate choreographer Tiger Brown are to be applauded for their hard work with the cast. The intense tap dancing in “Nobody Cares About Santa” is another impressive surprise.

Set designer Nate Bertone creates a whimsical backdrop for the show, grounded by huge arches covered in snowflakes. The giant logos for Macy’s and Greenway Press are eye-catching, as are the creative use of props and background silhouettes to show scene changes in real time. While musical director Charlie Reuter and the small orchestra are tucked out of sight in the pit, they provide the perfect, almost cartoonish, accompaniment to this silly show.

All told, director Matt Kunkel has led the Engeman’s cast of “Elf” in a production that’s loads of fun for the whole family — a perfect fit for the holiday season.

A note on content: “Elf” does contain some brief mild language and lighthearted innuendo that most children won’t notice. The show is generally appropriate for all ages.

If you have some extra money to spare, consider making a donation after the show to the Ecumenical Lay Council Food Pantry, which supports more than 150 local families each week. Cast members will collect donations as you leave. For more information, call 631- 261-4357.

See “Elf The Musical” now through Dec. 30 at the John W. Engeman Theater, 250 Main St., Northport. Tickets range from $73 to $78 with free valet parking. For more information or to order, call 631-261-2900 or visit www.engemantheater.com.

Photos by Michael DeCristofaro

ON TOP OF THE WORLD: Zachary Podair with the cast of 'Newsies'

By Melissa Arnold

Zachary Podair

Zachary Podair of Smithtown will have some great “What I Did This Summer” stories to share when he heads to middle school next month. The 11-year-old is spending almost every day onstage at the John W. Engeman Theater in Northport, where he is the youngest member in the cast of “Newsies.” 

The show is loosely based on the Newsboys Strike of 1899, where New York City paperboys organized a union and went on strike to be treated fairly on the job. Zachary plays the part of Les, who wants to help his older brother support their struggling family. His character is lovable and funny, providing some bright comic relief for the show. I recently spoke with Zachary about his professional theater debut, what it’s like being the youngest on the set and more.

What got you interested in acting?

When I was 6 years old, my sister was taking dance lessons and we would always go to pick her up. I really liked watching and decided I wanted to dance, too, so my mom put me in hip-hop classes. I love anything that involves dancing, so I started looking for shows that had a lot of dance numbers.

Have you been in any other shows?

My first show was four years ago, at the Encore Theater. I got to play [the title role in] “Aladdin.” And ever since then I try to do as many shows as I can. I was Rooster in “Annie,” Donkey in “Shrek,” and Charlie in “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.” 

What made you want to audition for ‘Newsies?’ Were you nervous?

My favorite kind of shows are dance-heavy, and I knew that “Newsies” was one. I had seen the movie before and thought that I would try out. It also has a really great musical score.

I wasn’t really nervous about it. I didn’t necessarily think I would get the part, but I figured it wouldn’t hurt to try. I was really surprised when I heard I was cast. They originally said they were going to double cast the part of Les, [meaning two actors would take turns playing the role], but they ended up just casting me by myself. That was really exciting.

What is it like being the youngest person in the cast?

Sometimes it’s different being the only person around my age, but everyone in the cast and the crew has been so sweet to me. I’ve learned so much from being in professional theater. Every person I’ve worked with has taught me something, from the casting agency to the other actors, the director and other crew. I’ve also improved my dancing so much from working with our amazing choreographer [Sandalio Alvarez].

Zachary Podair, right, in a scene from ‘Newsies’

What do you like about your character?

Les and I are so much alike. He’s just a funny guy. I love playing him because he’s got a lot of great dance scenes and he’s also the comic relief in a lot of ways. I love the one-liners. 

What has acting taught you about life?

So, so much. I’ve learned how important it is to be flexible — emotionally and physically. You have to be spontaneous, to be willing to go with anything. And, of course, you have to learn how to deal with rejection. You’re not going to get every part and not everyone is going to love you.

What would you say to other kids (or adults!) who want to try acting but are nervous?

Definitely don’t be afraid to try it! If you don’t get a part, then you have the experience of auditioning and you can learn from that. If you want, you can try again. And if you do get the part, then you get to have an amazing experience. Either way it’s a positive thing and so much fun to be a part of.

Why should people go see “Newsies?”

It’s one of those shows that has something for everyone, no matter who you are or how old you are. There are things the kids like and things the adults will laugh at. And I think it’s interesting because it’s based on true events — we worked really hard to make our version of the show as realistic as possible. It’s a positive show that will make you feel good.

Do you have a favorite memory from your time at the Engeman so far? 

So far, the best moment was the first day that we got to see the set all finished. It was so amazing. I think that was the moment it all really hit me. I thought, “This is real. It’s really happening.” It’s the best feeling.

The John W. Engeman Theater, 250 Main St., Northport will present “Newsies” through Sept. 2. Tickets range from $73 to $78. For more information or to purchase tickets, call 631-261-2900 or visit www.engemantheater.com.

All photos by Michael DeCristofaro

Mike Cefalo as Davey, Dan Tracy as Jack Kelly and the cast of 'Newsies'

By Melissa Arnold

This summer, the John W. Engeman Theater in Northport is transporting audiences to a New York City of long ago in its production of “Newsies.” This feel good, family-friendly show, which opened last Thursday, is thoroughly entertaining and will have you rooting for the cast from start to finish.

The cast of ‘Newsies’

“Newsies”’ journey to the stage is an interesting one — the show is based on the 1992 Disney movie of the same name, and made its Broadway debut in 2012, where it won two Tony Awards. The book was written by Harvey Fierstein, with music by Alan Menken (“Beauty and the Beast,” “Aladdin”) and lyrics by Jack Feldman. 

Both the film and musical are loosely inspired by the real-life events of the Newsboys Strike of 1899. The newspaper business was booming in 1898 while the United States was involved in the Spanish-American War. But when the war ended in September of 1898, so did the clamor for news. And this is where “Newsies” begins. 

In the summer of 1899, a ragtag group of Lower Manhattan paperboys are lamenting the slow news climate, and famed publisher Joseph Pulitzer is brainstorming ways to boost his profits. At that time, newsies purchased their own papers from the publishers to sell on the street. Pulitzer decides to hike the prices the newsies pay, and since most of the kids are poor, homeless or trying to support their families, the backlash is immediate.

Whitney Winfield as Katherine Plumber in a scene from ‘Newsies’

Led by the charismatic and scrappy 17-year-old Jack Kelly, the kids form a union and declare a strike. The show chronicles the uphill battle Jack and his friends face to be taken seriously and shines a light on unfair child labor practices of the era. At the core of “Newsies” is the power of resilience, community and standing up for a cause — and that spirit is as relevant today as it was then.

Under the direction of Igor Goldin, this production’s cast features a number of actors making their Engeman debut. Among them are Dan Tracy, whose confidence and comfort on stage give his portrayal of Jack Kelly a lovable swagger. Tracy does a great job balancing Jack’s tough guy exterior with a more hidden tender side, which shines through in songs such as “Santa Fe” and “Something to Believe In.” 

Mike Cefalo and Zachary Podair, who play the rookie paperboy Davey and his kid brother Les, are also new to the Engeman. The pair have a natural chemistry and strong voices — listen for Cefalo in “The World Will Know” and Podair in “Watch What Happens.” As the youngest member of the cast, Podair is charming and funny, and he’s sure to have a bright future ahead in acting.

Whitney Winfield, in the role of Katherine Plumber, certainly holds her own with a big voice in “King of New York” and “Something to Believe In.” Her character is loosely based off of reporter Nellie Bly, who was a trailblazer for working women and female journalists. Winfield plays the role with a contagious positive spirit and moxie.

Dan Tracy as Jack Kelly in a scene from ‘Newsies’

The ensemble is every bit as enjoyable as the main cast. Worth noting is their incredible talent for dance — choreographer Sandalio Alvarez and dance captain Claire Avakian are to be applauded for their hard work. “Newsies” is full of pirouettes, backflips, cartwheels, jumps and more tricks that will blow you away. Even the curtain call is an impressive showcase for their skill, where you can tell the cast is enjoying the show as much as we are.

The double-decker set designed by DT Willis depicts a Manhattan street, with metal staircases, a fire escape and a cityscape background. The set is multifunctional, transforming easily from a rooftop to the city square, a deli, theater and office with some quick work from the cast, who also functions as stage crew.

With every show at the Engeman, it’s the little touches at the theater that make the experience extra special. Show up early to enjoy one of several “Newsies”-themed cocktails, listen to ragtime or put yourself on the front page with their crafty wooden newspaper prop. Feel free to ask the staff to take a photo — they’re easy to find in old-time flat caps and suspenders. Be sure to check out the playbill for some fascinating information on the show’s historical background.

The John W. Engeman Theater, 250 Main St., Northport will present “Newsies” through Sept. 2. Tickets range from $73 to $78. For information or to purchase tickets, call 631-261-2900 or visit www.engemantheater.com.

All photos by Michael DeCristofaro

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