Review: NEWSIES at Westport Country Playhouse

By: Feb. 15, 2020
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Review: NEWSIES at Westport Country Playhouse

I never met my great-grandfather Dominick, but only heard stories about him, from his eldest daughter, my grandmother Santa, before she passed away. On St. Valentine's Day, 2020, however, I felt as if I got to see a part of my great-grandfather's story, on stage, as my wife and I had the pleasure of seeing NEWSIES at the Westport Country Playhouse in Westport, CT. This Disney musical, based on a true story, centers on impoverished youth, in New York City, in the very early 1900s, the time, place, and situation that my great-grandfather Dominick bravely endured, both to survive, and to help prepare the way for all his descendants, who now include more than thirty great-great-grandchildren, including my nine month old niece, Riley. This story features music by Alan Menken, lyrics by Jack Feldman, and book by Harvey Fierstein. Chaz Wolcott is marvelous as the director and choreographer of this spectacular cast that features forty Broadway Method Academy students acting with Broadway professionals, and the incredibly talented Robert Peterpaul, who based both on this stage performance and numerous others I have seen him in, is arguably Fairfield County's best stage actor!

While I do not have any children who are looking to pursue a career in acting, if I did, I certainly would be sold on the Broadway Method Academy. These youth were incredible! They were synchronized in their high speed, complicated movement dancing. They all remained in character at all times on stage, whether specifically delivering lines or not. When delivering lines, they projected with clarity and conviction. They sang together on the group numbers, united as a group, with clear lyrical annunciation and facial expressions that indicated that they both understood and felt the lyrics that they were singing. Most importantly, they all appeared to genuinely be having a wonderful time up on stage, resonating positive energy that circulated among each other, and transferred its way out into the audience who felt the enthusiastic vibes and got drawn right into the story, as if we were also fighting the characters' fight, with our collective futures depending on their victory. It is common in theater for children to automatically get applause and laughter, especially from their family members, just for being children. In this case, however, as someone with no children up on stage, I can reassure everyone that every applause given to these children, and every laugh after the delivery of one of their comical lines was totally legitimate and sincerely earned based on the high quality of the children's performance, and not merely because they were children.

A talented eleven piece live orchestra, led by Garrett Taylor accompanies this spectacular cast, performing these musical numbers at just the right volume to maximize every musical number's impact.

Scenic Designer Ryan Howell has created a true masterpiece of a set, initially depicting multiple layers of a poor section of New York City, complete with the background buildings, the scaffolding, and the smoke rising from the sewers. Despite the details and complexity of this set, it is meticulously and efficiently moved at times, to depict either the backstage or front stage area of a burlesque lounge, and the inside of a corporate office room.

The show opens with the characters Jack Kelly, who is magnificently performed by Broadway's Joey Barreiro, and Crutchie who is spectacularly portrayed by Robert Peterpaul. They are both up on a scaffolding, and are both newsboys, also know as "newsies." They sell newspapers, but not in the modern context of riding bicycles and delivering door to door, or newspaper box to newspaper box, to customers who had previously subscribed. Rather, at that time, the way their jobs worked is that they had to initially purchase a quantity of newspapers from the distributors, and then take them to the streets and personally and individually sell each newspaper that they bought. They take a personal financial hit on every newspaper they fail to sell, as the distributors do not buy them back. The money they make is what they must live on, and in some cases, use to furthermore support their families. The opening number of the show is the wistful ballad "Santa Fe," depicting Jack Kelly's longing for a better life, far away from New York City. This song is magnificently performed by Joey Barriero and Robert Peterpaul who have amazing stage chemistry together, both while singing and interacting. The hard-working characters Jack Kelly, and Crutchie, who is wounded and on crutches, sleep outdoors, on the scaffolding, with outdoor sleeping being the implied case with the majority of the newsies of the time, many of whom were orphans. It reminds me of hearing about how my great-grandfather Dominick, who was not a newsie, but who worked in a New York City bakery, as a young adolescent, had to spend nights sleeping on the large bags of flour in the bakery. I could not help but feel instantly connected to these characters that are so phenomenally performed by Joey Barriero and Robert Peterpaul who consistently has that stellar acting ability to make the audience connect with whatever character he portrays, further doing so in his later moving solo number, "Letter From the Refuge."

Broadway's James Judy is fantastic in his portrayal of the deliberately despicable central antagonist character Joseph Pulitzer, who although is generally seen in a historically positive light, has some of his alleged inner darkness exposed in this show. With his team of advisors, Pulitzer has concluded that in order to sell more newspapers and make more money, he would suddenly raise the costs that the newsies would have to pay to the distributors, thereby forcing the newsies to sell more papers in order to maintain the same income that they had been accustomed to, Pulitzer flippantly dismissing the hardship that such a decision would place on these poor orphans who were struggling to get by. In his own warped and twisted thinking, Pulitzer actually manipulated his own mind to feel morally justified and even praiseworthy in his own heinous actions, suggesting that this grave injustice would show these boys a valuable lesson on life.

When the news hit Jack Kelly that there would be a rise in distribution prices, a rise expected to be absorbed solely by the newsies, Jack Kelly leads the group in forming a newsies union, and striking against these unjust practices. His fellow newsies are eager to join together with him in his cause, and to furthermore inspire newsies all throughout New York City to take up the cause, with different local newsies assigned to spread the word in different locations such as the Bronx, Queens, Brooklyn, and other parts of Manhattan. Instrumental in helping him are Davey Jacobs and Davey's younger brother Les Jacobs who are spectacularly performed by Richie Cordero and Griffin Delmhorst, respectively. Sympathetic to their cause is lounge singer Medda Larkin who Broadway's Aisha de Hass performs with poise and professionalism, as well as young snappy journalist Katherine Plumber who becomes Jack Kelly's love interest, and is brought to life on stage by Broadway's Alaina Mills.

I applaud the Broadway Method Academy, the Westport Country Playhouse, and Chaz Wolcott for their decision to include female newsies among the male newsies, and for not trying to hide or disguise that fact. It was nice to see that, in this male character dominated show, they did not waste or attempt to masquerade all the first-rate young female talent that is being developed at the Broadway Method Academy. It also just becomes far easier to get behind any just cause (like a newsies strike) when it is clear that the issue is receiving strong co-ed support. The united power and camaraderie behind their cause is best showcased in the rousing ensemble anthem "The World Will Know," which becomes their battle cry.

These other talented cast members portraying the other newsies include Ethan Horbury, Isabel Chistoni, Kyle Geriak, Patrick McMenamey, Jimmy Hunter, Phoenix Goodman, Annika Jonker, Jayden Hudson, Nathan Ayotte, Alaina McCarvill, Ryanne Forrest, Ella Miller, Emily Seanor, Genevieve Seanor, Nicholas Ferreira, Tain Gregory, Grayson Aspen, Skylar Giblin, Claudia Cleri, Gillian Delmhorst, Kari Ergmann, Miriam Mamadashvilli, Sheridan Mullins, Serena Remmes, Lizzie Richards, Bailey Schumacher, Lilly Zuccala, Theo Adamson, Charley Bartlett, Olivia Kwok, Carly Mofenson, Rhys Rader, Betsy Ronning, Kaya Scharfstein, Plum Sonnenfeld, and Sophia Yanni.

The other adults in the cast also perform their roles excellently. These performers include Robin Title, Alex Ciardullo, Kevin Geraghty, Lee Emery, Dan Glennon, Ben Brennan, and Frank Dicaro who magnificently portrays Theodore Roosevelt.

Will the newsies win their battle? How will the process of selling newspapers be impacted? Will Joseph Pulitzer give in? Come to the show to find out! This is a thoroughly enjoyable show that sends the positive message to bravely stand behind a positive cause and reach out to others to share your passion in standing with you.

I highly recommend NEWSIES which is scheduled for just three more performances, this weekend, (Feb 14 to 16, with two shows on Feb 15) at the Westport Country Playhouse in Westport, CT. For times and tickets, please go to Tickets.