SALT LAKE CITY — For years fans have fallen in love with different versions of Newsies. But whether their favorite iteration of the story is the film, the Broadway production and its tour, or the recording of the stage version that is now available on Netflix, there is still plenty that is surprising (and delightful) in the current production of the stage version at Pioneer Theatre Company.
Newsies tells the story of newsboys working in New York in 1899, as they scrape by on the pennies each day that they get from selling newspapers on the street. Their hand-to-mouth existence is threatened, though, when their newspaper’s owner, Joseph Pulitzer, raises their costs by 20%. Led by newsboy Jack Kelley, the children strike. Spreading the word of this workers’ struggle is Katherine Plumber, a female reporter who sees this hot story as her ticket out of soft news and into a more prestigious beat. Things grow more complicated when she falls in love with Jack, though.
Karen Azenberg continues to demonstrate why she is a treasure in the Utah theatre community. Azenberg understood that what makes the stage version of Newsies so much better than the film is that the stage version was willing to reinvent aspects of the film to improve them. Likewise, Azenberg completely reinvented the staging for songs like “Carrying the Banner” and “Brooklyn’s Here.” She is also a master of creating riveting stage pictures, especially in “Watch What Happens,” the final confrontation in Pulitzer’s office, and even in mundane scenes like when Pulitzer is getting a haircut. Azenberg also staged the most complex fight scene I’ve watched in years, and the frenetic chaos that ensued on stage as the strikebreakers attacked the newsies added tension to the story.
But where Azenberg impresses most is her choreography, which amazed me through its variety and complexity. This was best demonstrated in “Seize the Day,” which had steps from ballet, jazz, and traditional musical theatre, with some gymnastics thrown in. “Carrying the Banner” was a strong show opener; its youthful energy set the right tone for the play and the Alan Menken score. Finally, her “King of New York” had a delightful surprise in its instrumental interlude that even got me to say, “Wow.”
I always look for the emotional core of a story, and it was easy to find in Newsies, thanks to the stellar performances of Jonathan Shew as Jack Kelly and Nadia Vynn as Katherine. Shew portrayed the inner struggle that Jack faces as he dreams of a life far away, while also wanting to care for the other newsboys around him. I was especially riveted by his reprisal of “Santa Fe,” where he appeared emotionally shaken by the confrontation with the strike breakers and shaken from seeing Crutchie hauled away to a prison-like orphanage. Shew had a suave air about him, which made it easy to see why Katherine would be smitten by him (in spite of herself). Vynn provided a charming performance as Katherine, giving her character a touch of anxiety that made Katherine flawed and relatable. Vynn’s strongest scene, though, was in “Watch What Happens,” a challenging stand-and-deliver song in which Jack Feldman‘s lyrics reveal Katherine’s feelings for Jack, career ambitions, hopes for the future, and apprehension, all in a few minutes. But Vynn had no trouble exposing her character’s full psychology through her body language and passionate singing. As fine as they both were, Shew and Vynn were best when on stage together, and their romantic sparring avoided the old hate-turns-to-love cliché, while still being the source of the some of the most humorous jokes in Harvey Fierstein‘s clever script.
The supporting cast was worthy of sharing the stage with their lead actors, and a review that lauds every strong performer in the large cast would be unrealistically long. Still, at least some actors deserve highlighting. As Crutchie, Austin Archer was effective at generating pathos, especially in his “Letter from the Refuge.” Cicily Daniels was a superb Medda Larkin, and her unique blend of elegance and confidence made “That’s Rich” a guilty pleasure in the first act. Equally impressive was the newsboy ensemble as a whole. These actors each cultivated a unique personality for their characters, a decision that gave depth and realism to their interactions. Yet, the ensemble was also effective in demonstrating unity in the songs, and the military-level precision of their dancing made “Seize the Day,” “Carrying the Banner,” and “King of New York” remarkable to watch.
The visual elements were all major assets for the production. The set design by George Maxwell was an exquisitely detailed imitation of brick walls and iron scaffolding that effectively established the time period and setting of the play. The huge upstage façade of the New York World office building looming over much of the play’s action was effective in establishing Joseph Pulitzer as a distant menace to the newsboys’ day-to-day life. Kirk Bookman‘s lighting design was perfect in establishing an appropriate mood for every scene, whether it was with an upstage orange-and-red sunrise during “Santa Fe,” or the ominously dim lighting during “Once and for All.”
But my favorite visual component of the production was David Kay Mickelsen‘s costume designs. The knickers, button-up shirts, vests, and the obligatory newsboy caps that the male ensemble wore were mostly in earth tones, but he gave Jack a dark blue vest, pants, and socks to visually distinguish the main character from the rest of the crowd. The decision worked effectively, but was not too obvious. Mickelsen also strayed away from the obvious when he gave Katherine blue accents in most of her scenes, though never the same shade that Jack wore. This subtly communicated that these two characters have something in common and that a romance should not be surprising. I also appreciated the details in the period shoes the actors wore, all of which looked authentic to the time period.
All in all, I immensely enjoyed almost everything in Pioneer Theatre Company’s production of Newsies. The extraordinary level of talent on stage and off has resulted in a play that is relentlessly fun to watch. The infectious score, brilliant script, gorgeous visual designs, outstanding choreography, and brilliant acting all combine to create my favorite musical theatre production in Utah this year. So, clear A Christmas Carol from your calendar, and see Newsies instead.