EMAV Review: Signature's exuberant 'Newsies' delivered straight from the heart ★★★★★

Newsies, Signature Productions 2019. Photos by Jilliene Michelle Photography

★★★★★ - Irresistible

Here's the scoop: "Disney 'Newsies' The Broadway Musical" is the perfect piece for Signature Productions to showcase their strengths as a community theater. With its fairly wholesome storyline, dance-driven action, and youthful, anthemic score, the show feels almost tailor-made for the company. Playing at the Summerlin Library Theatre, the presentation hits all the right notes--not only musically but also visually--with first-rate technical elements and charming and energetic performers who clearly love what they're doing.

"Newsies" is based on the real life, New York newsboys' strike of 1899. It was first a 1992 Disney movie-musical that was adapted into a stage play in 2011, with music by Alan Menken, lyrics by Jack Feldman, and book by Harvey Fierstein from the original screenplay by Bob Tzudiker and Noni White. The song "King of New York" is probably the most memorable of the score.

When New York World publisher Joseph Pulitzer raises the price of each copy of his newspaper to the delivery boys, their leader Jack (loosely based on real newsboy Kid Blink) rallies them to strike in protest of the unfair hike. Ambitious reporter Katherine (based on Nellie Bly) takes up their cause, dancing and singing ensues, and love between Jack and Katherine blooms.

The show has an uplifting, underdog-rises-above main idea. But life was tough for the real-life newsies, and themes about the exploitation of children, the importance of the press as a watchdog for the community and as a shaper of popular opinion, the injustices wrought by the haves against the have-nots, the battle for workers rights, and the idea of the arts as a refuge might always be topical. It's sobering to think that 120 years later, paperboys are nonexistent and that newspapers (especially the printed kind) and unions are in steep decline.

Under the direction of Leslie Fotheringham, the pace of the show is brisk, the look is polished, and the mood is joyful. She's also put girls in a few of the newsies roles, which are traditionally played by boys. Good since there are few roles for women in the large cast, and because there really were girl newsies at the turn of the 20th century. They're dressed like tomboys though, likely because it's easier to perform Ashley Oblad's difficult, jazz/tap/acrobatic choreography in knickers rather than dresses. But it might've been worthwhile to depict them as real girls, through and through.

Design elements are like candy for the senses. Jonathan Tuala's musical direction is sublime. Whether in solo or ensemble, the vocalists have the refinement of a professional cast. That's also a credit to sound designer Noah Goddard, whose mic levels are near perfect, with the music rarely overwhelming the singing. Erik Ball's formidable, erector-style set--constructed by technical director Stan Judd--is a multi-level, rolling one and can be configured in different ways for different locations, and gives the claustrophobic impression of tenement buildings and the fire escapes that zig-zag along their backsides. It gets flashes of color from the artistic photographic projections of Jeff Tidwell and Elizabeth Kline's sumptuous lighting, which often evokes the coppery-green look of the Statue of Liberty. And she gives three dimensions to performers and their beautiful, rich costumes designed and built by Roxanne Andrews. Kudos also to Alda Tomasic for her lifelike wigs and makeup, though Laney Hill's newspapers and stacks don't read realistically.

Reporters would quote Kid Blink (who wore a patch over his blind eye) phonetically in print to highlight his thick accent. The nuanced Ray Winters gives a distinctive dialect that adds to his charm in the part of Jack Kelley, the artistic leader who yearns for a life faraway from the city. Winters has a vintage look about him that inspires nostalgia, and is defiant and a little arrogant. But he's soft on the inside and full of raw emotion during his moving solo "Santa Fe." Winters and Naree Asherian as the idealistic and bright reporter Katherine have a harmonious chemistry together. The vivacious and multi-faceted Asherian is a revelation in the ingenue role. She has a beautiful color and complexity to her voice, which she plays up with glee during her Sondheim-like song "Watch What Happens."

The ensemble as a whole is excellent. Brandon Masterson endears with a dash of grit as the lovable Crutchie, Steffan Scrogan has a nice, natural quality as the pragmatic Davey, and Blake Heller is cute as a button as Les. The vibrant Demyia Browning is the embodiment of the bohemian songstress Medda (as in meta, inspired by vaudevillian Aida Overton Walker) Larkin as she belts out her solo "That's Rich," Vince Brouwers amuses with his bad boys Romeo and Spot Colon, Bart Pace gives both callousness and compassion as the distinguished villain Joseph Pulitzer, and James Claflin is a highlight as a rather whimsical Theodore Roosevelt.

Signature Productions delivers the goods with their feel-good presentation of "Newsies."

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