OREM — The Hale Center Theater Orem’s production of Disney’s Newsies: The Broadway Musical directed by Lisa Hall is a fun diversion full of youthful spirit, even if it’s not front page news. The energetic cast gives it their all, but their efforts are thwarted by a set design that is dingy and distracting.
Newsies, first released as a Disney movie in 1992, is based on an historical two-week newsboys strike in the summer of 1899. In the play, the newspaper editors respond to low newspaper sells by increasing the amount of money the newsies have to pay for each paper in order to make more income. Unhappy with this change, the boys unite to fight the most powerful man in New York, David Pulitzer (played by David Walker) under the leadership of their ring-leader Jack Kelly (played by David Muncy). In the process of their ideological fight, Jack becomes romantically attached to a young female reporter that goes by the pen name Katherine Plumber (Kelly Coombs) who turns out to be Katherine Pulitzer, daughter of the famous editor the boys are fighting. With her help, the Newsies unite a whole city of exploited kids to demand changes to their working conditions.
From the beginning of the play to the end, there is an exhilarating energy that is nothing short of joyful. It is clear that the actors are having fun with this production, and this amusement carries over into the world of the play where the characters are the city’s poor youth finding joy despite their circumstances. So when the moment comes that they are asked to make less than the pittance they are already earning to sell the papers, the injustice is felt keenly.
Muncy does an exceptional job in his sincere portrayal of Jack. Demonstrating a commendable versatility in the production, Muncy is the consummate leader of the gang as well as the vulnerable dreamer. With his perfect dialect, attitude, mannerisms, and strong voice, he carries the show. Fortunately, Muncy’s stage presence is matched by Coombs in her portrayal of Katherine. In a production so dominated by men, Coombs emerges on stage with a charisma all her own and adds a tremendous amount of humor to the production with her physicality. Other stand-out performances in supporting roles include Joseph Paul Branca as Crutchie and Abram Yarbro as Davey. The rest of the ensemble also give exceptional performances (most notable is the militant number, “The World Will Know”), and it is clear that Hall spent a great deal of time on character development as not one of the more than dozen boys gets lost among the crowd on the stage.
The stage itself would have been better to have been lost. Designed by Cole McClure, the set was a mismatched collection of design elements meant to look like New York City. From my entrance into the theater, I was puzzled at what my eyes were seeing. There were two framed platforms pushed together with two screens hanging vertically from above on which there were projections of city buildings that disappeared upon the play’s opening. On the back wall were further images of city buildings. These images and the framed platforms were painted in terrible browns, greens, and yellows, as if to communicate the dirty, poor, parts of New York. Unfortunately, these colors were also present in the costume design, otherwise nicely executed by Janae Lafleur, and seemed enhanced by Cody Swenson’s lighting design. The framed platforms also seemed awkward in the production. While the platforms were fine in the scene in which they were meant to portray the beams of an unfinished sky-scraper, they seemed cumbersome and out of place for much of the production.
The set design didn’t lend itself to a cast of this size. I have been to several productions at the Hale Center Theater Orem, and given the right set design, this small stage can work for a fairly large company. However, for Newsies the stage often seemed crowded—so much so that it was distracting at times. I was seriously conscious of the possibility of an audience member getting hit during a dance number, especially since Ashley Gardner Carlson’s choreography included so much jubilant (and impressive) tumbling. Less impressive, however, were the fight scenes choreographed by Kellan David Connolly. These scenes were the only moments where I felt the energy leave the stage, so focused were the actors on the technicality of their stage combat (a problem that may resolve as the run of the show continues).
Though the set has some problems, the show is still makes for a joyful, powerful evening. Every cast member added to the production’s energy and value, and their performance was a gift to see. Newsies is worth going to for its high-energy, quick moving, joyful expression of the power of youth.