Newsies, just opened at Toby’s Dinner Theatre, takes us back to 1899 New York City, when newspapers were sold on street corners by impoverished newsboys to people who trusted the “papes” to tell them what was happening in the world. A time when newspaper owners were so politically powerful that a governor could be counted on to personally intervene on their behalf during a labor strike.
Newsies, which captured two Tony Awards among the eight categories nominated in 2012 and was based on the 1992 movie, which in turn was based on actual events, is a magnificent presentation of courage, idealism and inspiration.
One cannot overlook the timing of Toby’s production. Masterfully co-directed by Helen Hayes Award winners Toby Orenstein and Mark Minnick, the night this production was reviewed was only 40 hours away from a worldwide March for our Lives that is expected to bring millions of people, many of them students, to the streets to advocate for gun reform and an end to gun violence.
The parallels between the story told in Newsies and this march is inescapable. Both were/are led by determined, passionate, idealistic and inspiring young people against powerful, formidable forces. In Newsies, art indeed imitates life.
With a rich score by Alan Menken, lyrics by Jack Feldman and book by Harvey Fierstein, Newsies, tells the story of Jack Kelly (played magnificently by Matt Hirsh) who dreams of moving to Santa Fe, leads a strike of newsboys against the rich and greedy Joseph Pulitzer (ably played by Russell Sunday), the publisher of the New York World after he jacked up the cost of newspapers to the newsboys.
closes June 10, 2018
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The strike had its ups and downs and keeping his cohorts motivated against mounting odds was a challenge for Jack. As a backdrop, Jack discovers a journalist whose byline is Katherine Plumber (wonderfully played by MaryKate Brouillet) and who becomes his love interest. The adventures and twists that ensue are best left for the audience to enjoy.
The lusty score with glorious vocals and high-energy dancing highlight the production. Ross Scott Rawlings and his six-piece orchestra do a fine job of supporting the performers, and Mark Smedley’s well-mic’d, very clear, sound design maintain the right balance.
Choreographer Ilona Kessell, another Helen Hayes Award recipient, is creative in devising high-tempo dances for the talented company for the in-the-round stage. Pirouettes, hand springs, cartwheels and leaps dominate most of the dance numbers with some of the highlights including the acrobatic “Carrying the Banner,” “The World Will Know” where the Newsies are expressing their defiance and determination, the show-stopping “Seize the Day,” and “Finale Ultimo.”
As the lead actor, Matt Hirsh, playing Jack Kelly, is sensational throughout. He demonstrates proficient acting skills where he exhibits the right amount of rage without going over the top and also shows tender, emotional vulnerability while consistently maintaining a New York accent. His singing ability is off the charts with a smooth, resonant and powerful tenor voice that is evident in such songs as “Santa Fe,” “The World We Know,” “I Never Planned on You/Don’t Come A-Knocking” and “Something to Believe In”—a touching duet with MaryKate Brouillet.
Ms. Brouillet shines as Katherine with solid acting and beautiful mezzo-soprano vocals. Her rendition of “Watch What Happens” is a joy to behold. Other strong vocalists include Taylor Witt as the disabled Crutchie (“Letter from the Refuge”); powerful mezzo-soprano Kadejah Oné as Medda Larkin, a vaudeville-style theater owner (“That’s Rich”); and solid tenor Harrison Smith as Davey, another one of the Newsies’ leaders (“The World We Know” and “King of New York”).
Young Tyler Smallwood (alternates with Cooper Trump) as precocious Les is a regular scene stealer. He’s almost 10 but is instructed by Jack to tell people he’s 7 to help sell papers. Tyler acts, sings and dances with poise beyond his years and delivers most of the show’s comedic lines.
Other notable cast members include Russell Sunday as Joseph Pulitzer, Robert Biedermann 125 as Wiesel/Mayor, David Bosley Reynolds as Nunzio/Jacobi/Governor Roosevelt and David James as Seitz/Snyder. Nonetheless, the entire company is superb.
In addition to the outstanding acting, dancing and vocal performances by the cast, the technical crew deserves major applause for adeptly transforming Toby’s in-the-round venue for that 19th century feel. Scenic Designer David A. Hopkins portrays the grit of New York of that era with old-time set pieces and props, such as a classic printing press and period furniture.
Metallic scaffolding resembling barricades serve as bedrooms for the orphaned and homeless newsboys in the juvenile detention center known as the Refuge. Projection screens along the walls that display headlines from developments in the story add a fine touch as well.
Smart lighting design (Lynn Joslin and David Hopkins) takes us back in time with prevailing dim illumination except for spotlighting on a particular scene or performance along with well-placed fog effects.
Costume designer Janine Sunday does a great job fitting the cast in period attire. The newsboys dressed in predominantly baggy beige pants with suspenders and raggedy shirts and vests particularly add to the authenticity and accurately reflect the wardrobe worn by working class boys of the era.
With such a large cast performing on an intimate stage, a good portion of the action takes place on scaffolds, platforms and ladders bringing a vertical perspective to the audience. That makes the production play large.
Newsies is stunning entertainment from the front page to the last. Toby’s production under the guiding hands of Ms. Orenstein and Mr. Minnick will keep you engrossed in a compelling and inspiring story that will make you alternately laugh and shed a tear or two while being mesmerized by fantastic singing, dancing and staging. This show should not be missed.
Disney’s Newsies, the Broadway Musical. Music by Alan Menken. Lyrics by Jack Feldman. Book by Harvey Fierstein. (Based on the Disney film written by Bob Tzudiker and Noni White.) Director: Toby Orenstein. Co-Director: Mark Minnick. Cast: Matt Hirsh as Jack Kelly; Taylor Witt Race as Crutchie; Shiloh Orr as Race; Calvin Malone as Albert/Spot Conlon; Gregory Banks as Specs; Alexander DeVito as Henry/Bill; Brandon Bedore as Finch; David Singleton as Elmer; Joey Ellinghaus as Romeo; Jack Angel as Tommy Boy; Henry Niepoetter as Jo Jo; Brook Urquhart as Buttons; MaryKate Brouillet as Katherine Plumber; Samantha McEwen Deininger, Kadejah Oné, Louisa Tringali as Nuns; Justin Calhoun as Morris Delancey; Jeffrey Shankle as Oscar Delancey/Darcy; Robert Biedermann 125 as Weisel/Mayor; Harrison Smith as Davey; Tyler Smallwood or Cooper Trump as Les; Russell Sunday as Joseph Pulitzer; David Bosley-Reynolds as Nunzio/Jacobi/Governor Roosevelt; David James as Seitz/Snyder; Shawn Kettering as Bunsen/Stage Manager; Samantha McEwen Deininger as Hannah; Kadejah Oné as Medda Larkin; Samantha McEwen Deininger, Louisa Tringali as Bowery Beauties. Musical Direction & Orchestrations: Ross Scott Rawlings. Choreographer: Ilona Kessell. Scenic Designer: David A. Hopkins. Sound Designer: Mark Smedley. Lighting Designer: Lynn Joslin and David Hopkins. Wig Designer: Tommy Malek. Costume Designer: Janine Sunday. Reviewed by Steve Charing.