Two Young Actors Share a Role in Chanhassen Dinner Theatres’ Newsies

Jon-Erik Chamberlain and Tanner Zahn Hagen

In the musical Newsies, now playing at Chanhassen Dinner Theaters (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 of his character. “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,” Jon-Erik says.

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,” she says. As to why they share the part, Howland explains that CDT’s director, Michael Brindisi, feels that a child ought to be able to act in a CDT production and still be a kid—still have time for school, family, birthday parties and the like. “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 live in Wayzata when Tanner is acting and escape back home to family (including an older brother and mom, Jennifer, a dance teacher, who runs the Madill Performing Arts Center) in Hermantown when Jon-Erik takes the role. Tanner is a student online with Connections Academy. His father, he says, taught him how to sing and his mother, to dance. Each of his parents has a history of arts performance, 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 when he didn’t like performing, he says. He and his brother “always did skits when we were little.”

Jon-Erik lives with his family in Corcoran and is homeschooled by his mom, Deborah, who also works part-time at the Medina Entertainment Center. Deborah has homeschooled all her children (Jon-Erik has three doting, older sisters), and Jon-Erik’s father works from home as a computer engineer. Jon-Erik’s previous roles have been at the Front Porch Musical Theater in Rogers, where he and his sisters have performed for years. “They all did musical theater,” says Deborah, “but when Jon-Erik went onstage, he became a different person. We would sit back and think, ‘Who is that child?’” Jon-Erik’s current role at CDT is his first professional part, secured while only just starting tap dance lessons.

Given free rein to dream, Tanner says that in 10 years he’d like to be on Broadway. 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. Jon-Erik says that, while he certainly would like to audition for another professional performance, in 10 years he’ll be in college and “performing could be a very fun hobby.” Says Deborah, “He has ideas of what he’d like to do other than this. It’s a lot of fun for him now. But we never know how God will lead us."