Les is More

Wayzata actor takes one half of a plum role in Newsies.

In the musical Newsies—now playing at Chanhassen Dinner Theatres (CDT)—Les Jacobs is an almost-10-year-old boy whose older brother, David, and another newsboy, Jack, are involved in a strike against a powerful newspaper publisher. As in all CDT productions featuring children, the role is shared by two young men, 13-year-old Tanner Zahn Hagen and 11-year-old Jon-Erik Chamberlain.

“Les wants to be like the newsies,” says Tanner, who lives in Wayzata during the production’s run. “He gets annoyed when David won’t let him do much.” Instead of looking up to David, says Tanner, Les idolizes Jack and becomes his cheering section as the strike drags on. When he plays Les, says Tanner, “I add hope.”

Jon-Erik sees it a little differently. Les, he says, is basically a little kid trying to act older than he is. “He’s still just a cute boy,” says Jon-Erik.

CDT public relations director Kris Howland says each young actor’s take on Les “brings something unique to the role. Tanner is a showman. Jon-Erik is very endearing and sweet.” As to why they share the part, Howland explains CDT’s director Michael Brindisi feels a child ought to be able to act in a CDT production and still be a kid: still have time for school, family and birthday parties. “It’s an expensive policy,” says Howland, but the payoff is big. “We do get a lot of families with children in our audiences.”
The two boys share the role in a way that allows Tanner and his dad, Dustin, to escape back home to Hermantown and family—including an older brother and mom, Jennifer, a dance teacher who runs the Madill Performing Arts Center—when Jon-Erik takes the role. Tanner is a student online with Connections Academy. His dad, he says, taught him how to sing, and his mom taught him how to dance. Each of his parents has a history in the arts, and Dustin currently manages competitive and recreational dance teams. Tanner’s experience onstage includes playing the lead role in Billy Elliot: The Musical (July 2017 at the Duluth Playhouse) and performing in a 15-minute film short as a result of several weeks in Los Angeles, during which time he auditioned successfully for a film agent. He can’t remember a time he didn’t like performing, he says. He and his brother “always did skits when we were little,” he says.

Given free rein to dream, Tanner says in 10 years he’d like to be on Broadway. Dad Dustin is all-in: “It’s tough being away from home,” he says, but he and Tanner’s mom are committed to pursuing opportunities for their son.