From the moment you enter Arena Stage’s Fichandler Stage, an intimate theater-in-the-round where everyone has a seat close to the action, you’ll be transported to turn-of-the-19th-century New York, where laundry hangs from every window and street kids called “Newsies” sell newspapers in order to make enough money to eat. It could be a bleak place where child labor and poverty are common and kids are at the mercy of mostly uncaring adults. But instead, Newsies delivers a theater experience that will lift your spirits and remind you of the power of ordinary people to change the world.
With music by Alan Menken, lyrics by Jack Feldman, and book by Harvey Fierstein, Newsies starts off with a pedigree that would portend great things. Director Molly Smith uses the round stage setting to her advantage, infusing the show with movement and energy and allowing the (mostly) young actors under her wing to shine. It’s a challenge to keep the audience engaged when the actors always have their backs to a large part of the crowd, but Smith’s direction and effective set design by Ken Macdonald work together to keep the audience connected to the story no matter which direction the actors are facing.
Disney’s Newsies is known for its dance sequences and the Arena Stage production is no exception. Complete with high kicks, backflips, and a tap sequence in “King of New York” that will knock your socks off, Parker Esse’s choreography, and the ability of the extremely talented cast to carry out his vision, is the highlight of the show.
The Newsies are led by Daniel J. Maldonado as Jack Kelly (I confess I left the theater with a little crush). Maldonado is the perfect Jack, at times confident and strong, at other times vulnerable and unsure, but always likable, a hero you can’t help rooting for, even when things are at their bleakest. Other strong performances include Joe Montoya as Crutchie and Ethan Van Slyke as Davey, but it is the ensemble songs, including “The World Will Know” and “Seize the Day” where the show really shines.
There aren’t a lot of women in Disney’s Newsies, but the few on the stage give mighty performances. Erin Weaver as the sassy Katherine Plumber and Nova Y. Payton as Medda Larkin are wonderful to watch and listen to, and Weaver’s rendition of “Watch What Happens,” was one of the show’s highlights. And you can’t miss the amazing dancing from the few female Newsies in the ensemble.
The 11-piece orchestra led by music director and conductor Laura Bergquist filled the theater and the sound design by Daniel Erdberg was crisp and clear. In addition, the theater offers the GalaPro closed-captioning service for those with hearing impairments.
The David vs. Goliath story of how a ragtag group of street kids took on two of the mightiest media moguls of all time, Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst, might not be one of the most well-known historical incidents in American history, but you’d be surprised at just how relevant it feels to today. Thanks to Arena Stage’s triumphant production of Disney’s Newsies, a whole new generation will learn that even kids can fight “the man” and win.
Running Time: Two hours and 20 minutes, with a 15-minute intermission.
Cast: Edward Gero, Joseph Pulitzer; Rory Boyd, Matthew Davies, Javier Del Pilar, Wyn Delano, Christian Douglas, Brett-Marco Glauser, Hazel Hay, Michael Hewitt, Michael John Hughes, Carole Denise Jones, Tomás Matos, Emre Ocak, Shiloh Orr, Tanner Pflueger, Bridget Riley, Tro Shaw, Thomas Adrian Simpson, Jamie Smithson, Josiah Smothers, Lucy Spring, Luke Spring, Chaz Wolcott, Kelli Youngman, Ensemble
Creative: Alejo Vietti, Costume Designer; Kimberly Purtell, Lighting Designer; Charles G. LaPointe, Wig Designer; Anita Maynard-Losh, Associate Director and Text Director; Michael John Hughes, Assistant Choreographer; Suzanne Román Jones, Assistant Music Director; Lisa Nathans, Dialect and Vocal Coach; Jenny Male, Fight and Intimacy Consultant; Hochi Asiatico, Artist, Designer, Costume Painter
Read Barbara Mackay’s interview with Ethan Van Slyke here.