BWW Review: NEWSIES at Nebraska Wesleyan Theatre is Flippin' Fun!
Hold the press for big NEWSIES at Nebraska Wesleyan Theatre!
The 1992 Disney film, NEWSIES was adapted for stage by Alan Menken (music) and Jack Feldman (lyrics) with book by Harvey Fierstein. DISNEY'S NEWSIES was nominated for several Tony Awards in 2012, winning Best Original Score and Best Choreography for Christopher Gatelli. NEWSIES ran for two years, becoming the first Disney show on Broadway to turn a profit.
The story of NEWSIES was inspired by the historic Newsboys Strike of 1899 in New York City. Kid Blink (blind in one eye so he wore an eye patch) led a group of street kids who peddled newspapers for a living in a daring strike against behemoth publishers, Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst when they raised the cost of papers by a dime for a hundred. As a newsie protests, "I can eat two days on a dime." The two week strike eventually resulted in a win for the newsies and, ironically, higher circulation of Pulitzer's "New York World." In the theatrical version of NEWSIES Kid Blink loses the eye patch and is renamed Jack Kelly.
When Jack (Rico Santana), aided by his new friend Davey (Noah Tierney) and Davey's cute little brother Les (C J Koolen), leads the newsies on strike, Joseph Pulitzer (Matt Cobb) sends out cops and strikebreakers, imprisons Jack's friend Crutchie (Jaylin Wiese), and puts Warden Snyder (Laird Akeo) of the Refuge Center hot on Jack's trail for his previous "crimes" of robbing from the rich to give to the poor street kids. Jack hides out with his vaudeville friend, Medda Larkin (Merrill Mitchell), for whom he paints backdrops. There Jack meets a young journalist, Katherine Plumber (Emma Kate Brown), who is trying to break into the male-dominated world of news reporting. She decides to write a story about the little Davids taking on the big Goliath because she knows that "It's the headline that crowns the victor." And she needs a break. That winning front page headline reads, "Newsies Stop the World!"
Ruben Del Valle, Jr. and Melissa Rosenberger co-direct and co-choreograph this delightful musical romp set amongst a very well done rustic set designed by Jason Jamerson. What is interesting about this set is its textures. The front of the buildings are a realistic brick and the windows are shaded in the corners giving them a three dimensional look. There are bolts on the bridge abutments and the rolling newspaper stand looks like stone. Someone put in a lot of work and paid attention to detail.
What makes it even more polished are the lights and sound designed by Joshua Brauer. The lights are configured to amplify the mood and focus on the action. At one point the set is in darkness but for a soft light shining down on Crutchie as he writes his friend Jack. The feeling is loneliness, but with an uncrushable spirit. Brauer also runs the sound clear and loud with Piper Monson keeping the digital music on track. Julie Heaton, Music Director, does a phenomenal job keeping the performers perfectly in sync with the track. Everything works seamlessly.
Costumes by Simon Brett are subdued neutrals, perfect for the period and place. The only costume I had a hard time liking was the black and white checked jacket with the leg-of-mutton sleeves worn by Katharine. Although entirely appropriate for that time, those sleeves were one of the worst fashion ideas in the history of clothing design. (No fault to Simon Brett! He got it right.)
The partnership of Del Valle, Jr. and Rosenberger make the success of this show a sure bet. Coming from backgrounds in theatre and dance, they have built impressive resumes. They are a married couple who both hold MFAs from The Actors Studio Drama School at Pace University, New York. Rosenberger has won awards for her work as an actress and has trained with such dance notables as (I'm envious here!) Mia Michaels. Del Valle, Jr. has the distinction of having appeared as Young Simba in THE LION KING on Broadway in addition to his other accomplishments. These are no rank amateurs.
Consequently, the choreography in NEWSIES is fantastic. Each member of the cast puts high energy into the movement. They tap, leap, and flip through the air. Some minor roles make major impact like Simeon Williams (Specs) who performs some pretty astounding flips. Young Koolen is right there with him with his gymnastic feats. Maddie Wurth (JoJo) and Race (Garrett Weskamp) tear up the floor, keeping good company with a whole stage filled with dancing, gymnastic excitement. There are some really fine dancers in this production. If NEWSIES is known for one thing, it is great movement.
Rico Santana as Jack Kelly can tell a story. His strong stage presence demands attention. Not only is he a crazy good dancer, he has an uncanny ability to embody his character. Even his less-than-polished vocals perfectly suit the rough, yet gentle, street kid. He possesses a charisma that convinces us that yes, Jack can lead these kids to strike despite the risk. Even when he stops believing in himself, we believe in him.
The vocals overall are solid. Emma Kate Brown (Katherine Plumber) with her clear soprano and super expressive facials in "Watch What Happens," Noah Tierney (Davey) with his melodious voice, and Jaylin Wiese (Crutchie) with his plaintive tone in "Letter From the Refuge" stand out. Matt Cobb (Pulitzer), Colin Swanson (Seitz), John Alden (Bunsen), and Kaylee Baker (Hannah) turn out some gorgeous harmony in "The Bottom Line." Garrett Weskamp (Race) sounds strong in "King of New York." Merrill Mitchell is coquettish and fun-loving as the vaudevillian Medda Larkin. You can see why Kelly feels comfortable with her because she seeps good cheer. The group numbers are big and beautiful!
This is a truly wonderful cast from top to bottom. Everyone seems to work together seamlessly, united in the end goal of a great show.
There is a surprise or two, especially if you are seated in the front of house, but it is no surprise that NEWSIES is "Extra! Extra! Read all about it!" great at Nebraska Wesleyan Theatre.
Photo Credit: Lane Hickenbottom