BWW Review: NEWSIES at The Straz Center
Everyone knows the story, and or has seen the classic film starring a young Christian Bale. A group of boys left to live on the street, or find ways to scrounge up a little money to feed their parents, and their only source of notable income is to sell papers. With a money-hungry tyrant raising the cost of papers, the boys decide to go on strike to change the ways in which society is run and hopefully for once make it past, or above the fold to the front page of the paper! Change the headline, change society that is the scene set forth by Jack Kelly and the Newsies for this explosive Disney Musical that was a smash on Broadway, and that which has now taken Ferguson Hall at the Straz Center by storm and left the audiences singing and dancing all the way home, and for some even after the show has closed.
So how does a musical set in 1899 become relevant today, and how does it change the views of not only audience members but the cast as well? This and many other questions were what I asked myself upon taking my seat. Once the curtain opened, I was immediately swept away and immersed in the time period and the plight of these brave Newsies. Director Suzanne Livesay, Vice President of Education for the Patel Conservatory has done a commendable job with this group of extremely talented and young performers. Along with Assistant Director Matthew Belopavolich, Suzanne guided this talented group through a difficult show and succeeded in creating a well-oiled machine. One thing Newsies is known for is the high-flying and incomparable dancing that's difficult even for adult actors. Steve Jones encompassed the difficult choreography and made it fun, and enjoyable for the audience as well as the cast. You could see how much fun each and every dedicated performer was having as they executed the astute and beautifully placed choreography. The power in every turn, every jump, and tap movement was felt in each step and the audience was invested in the plight of these beautiful storytellers.
Upwards of 60 talented area performers turned this true story into a two hour non-stop professional level show, that made me sit back and forget I was watching younger performers. I think I agree with Director Suzanne Livesay with her sentiment, that this version of Newsies is different in a sense that we have actual kids playing age appropriate roles. 4 weeks of rehearsal and 10 hour tech days culminated a professional and emotional two hour show that everyone involved should be proud of. Jack Kelly played by the magnetic and extremely talented Jacob Atkins was the born leader this character is intended to be. One major highlight was his Act 1 closing solo "Santa Fe" where his voice soared to new heights and this is one young talent I will be sure to watch, and can't wait to see where he goes from here. The equally magnamic Crutchie played by Sean Cunningham, had the right amount of comedic timing and he really wore that crutch well! His voice was outstanding, and his physicality from his facial expressions, down to his movements were a force to be reckoned with.
The use of a drop scrim that helped portray the projections were a wonderful way to pull the audience into the world of the characters. The use of scaffoldings and minimal furniture gave the feel of being in New York amidst the skyscrapers and the actors moved about them with ease. The scene changes were seamless and flowed so effortlessly I forgot they even happened. It truly is a testament to professionalism when scene changes become so much a part of the show, that no point of the story is interrupted. The costumes and hair were period, and workable, but also appropriate for the age of the actors. There was a point in the show in which dancing theatre girls take the stage in corsets, a moment that could be cringe-worthy at best, and this moment of the show was beautifully executed and appropriate for the actresses portraying the dancers. Costume Designer Carla Webster had a large undertaking with such a large cast, and her execution was masterful and deserves kudos. Design elements all intentional and for all the right reasons swept the audience away into old school New York and made me miss a city so dear to my heart, and helped this beautiful story come to life for all involved and the company should be commended.
There were many standouts in this exceptionally talented cast, and I could spend pages writing about them all, because everyone had their own unique standout moments. Jaden Waz played the always electric Joseph Pulitzer. Pulitzer is the man you hate to love and love to hate, full of commanding stage presence, a powerful voice, and excellent comedic timing Jaden gave an exceptional performance, his standout number was "Bottom Line", and the bottom line here is Jaden is one to watch and I cannot wait to see what he does next. Katherine Plumber played by Rebekah Vallejo has an outstanding voice and blew the roof off of Ferguson Hall with her number "Watch What Happens" and the beautiful duet between her and Jack in Act 2 made my heart swell! She is a talent that commands the stage and a breath of fresh air each time she is on stage. Katherine is a difficult role to play and she does a beautiful job and should be commended for the stellar performance that I could not stop talking about all through intermission. Her need and want to break out on her own, out from under her father's shadow is a tour-de force and she does so with gusto. Seth Black-Diamond is a scene stealer as Les in the best way possible, small in stature Seth explodes with talent that is larger than life, and this is no exception. He's a joy to watch each time he is on-stage. Quinten Hall is wonderful as Davey, you really see the growth in his character's arc through the show. His smooth vocals in "Seize the Day" was a standout and made his character one to remember. One small issue I had was a few times he looked confused and made me question where he was looking, though a character choice it may have been, that moment made me question his sotry and pulled me out of the moment briefly. Investment is key and in this moment, for the smallest of seconds, fell flat for me. As a performer we want the audience to be as invested in the moment as we are, so living 100% in the moment is key. In such a large cast it can often be hard to pick stand outs... and in this production this was no exception as everyone encomapassed a truly professional production and everyone should be extremely proud of the job well done.
Songs are key in a big musical, and Disney has no issue with that. Putting big standout numbers in Act 1 and then opening Act 2 with a highly-energized tap number made this show one to be reckoned with. The emotionally powerful and moving "World Will Know" is the anthem we needed not only then, but also now in the social climate we currently face. The world is changing, the Newsies knew it then, and as the audience we know that now more than ever. Posing perfect framework for today, "World Will Know" is the emotionally stirring and jarring anthem even I didn't know we needed. It was felt from wall to wall and floor to ceiling and left the room buzzing with electricity, and the audience was invested in every line and every step. Another rousing anthem was "Once and for All," the harmonies soared to new heights and took my breath away. Full of outstanding numbers, to emotionally stirring anthems Newsies is as relevant today, as it was in 1899 and the company should be commended for their performance, and the Director should be commended for making a show so invested in time period a relevant piece of theatre that has as much meaning now, and in some sense more than ever.
All in all the Patel Conservatory's production was professionally executed, and astutely performed. Down to the smallest detail, there was not a weak moment in the show and everyone involved should be proud. It's not often a musical so bound in historical significance, can be so significant to our lives today. One understands that cultural relevance makes for a moving piece of work not just for the audience but for all involved, and this production does just that. Professionally produced and student performed this talented cast should "Watch What Happens," because this show could easily be taken on the road. So as I bid adieu to the talented cast and crew of Newsies, I dream of "Santa Fe" and what the future holds for each of these talented performers, and as Jack Kelly says, "I don't want a life in a big-city, give me a big-life in a small town!" Brava to the Patel and all involved, for you brought a story harbored in the big city to our small corner of the world and for myself and all who witnessed its prowess I commend you and cannot wait to "Watch What Happens" next!
Photo Credit: Soho Images