DRAPER — The Draper Amphitheater is a beautiful outdoor venue located atop a large, green hill in Draper, Utah. With grass-covered stadium seating, this venue is the perfect location for family shows and events. The Draper Arts Council presented a spectacular production of Disney’s Newsies, directed by Susan DeMill and Tricia Swanson, on and around the gargantuan amphitheater stage that was, all in all, entertaining and impressive.
The set, created by scenic artist Devon Johnson, was fabulous. Several tall, metal platforms on wheels (highly reminiscent of scaffolding) were the largest set pieces on stage, with a painted backdrop silhouette of the New York skyline at the back to set the scene for the entire production. Other sizable set pieces that moved in and out clearly clued me into where the characters found themselves. At certain points during the evening, set changes would be made by the cast and crew (thanks to great planning by stage manager Kalista Vordos) without me even noticing, because I was enraptured by the musical sensation before me.
Prop designer and set decorator Shauna Call did absolutely incredible work—I was blown away when a woman walked her dog across the stage, an authentic, vintage printing press was rolled out, and when two Model T Fords cruised in at the front of the amphitheater, transporting the arena into the early twentieth century; there were even functioning phones and cameras from the era, evidence of Call’s meticulous care for the details.
Lighting designer and operator Meghan Gibson was also fantastic, adding twinkling lights to the uplit backdrop and changing the stage’s lighting patterns to reflect time of day or changes in mood. Near the end of the second act, the newsies came singing and dancing into the crowd, handing out copies of their newspaper they had printed with the help of Pulitzer’s daughter. The newsies then stood to sing in the aisles all the way up the stadium seating, and Gibson was able to illuminate these actors even several yards away from the stage.
From tap dancing to tumbling, the choreography was exciting and entertaining. Choreographer DeMill (one of the production’s directors) sat on the front row during the performance, and could be seen silently cheering on each of the performers—a telltale sign of true support and admiration for the cast she trained. With an enormous cast (more than 50 actors and actresses were credited in the playbill), the stage and foreground were filled with young people dancing precisely to the beats of the music. Though the cast had a great range of acting and (presumably) dancing experience, DeMill was able to consistently produce cohesive and riveting spectacle.
In addition to the talented crew, several cast members also stood out and are worthy of note. Crutchie was played by Max Morgan, and he was a perfect fit for the role. Even climbing up ladders and between scenes, Morgan drug his foot behind him, unwavering from his character’s trademark characteristic. Though occasionally during a song it became difficult to hear him, Morgan was able to portray Crutchie as an individual who was humble, somewhat insecure, but who found confidence and strength in his friends. Morgan kept his mouth small with lips close together, and he only seemed to flash a smile once in a while; this choice was perfectly appropriate for his character. Morgan’s true talent became apparent during his solo number in the second act, “Letter from The Refuge.”
Brielle Anderson played Katherine Plumber, daughter of Mr. Pulitzer. Anderson had a great vocal range, and was able to hit most every note in her songs, though she did seem to struggle with her breathing between notes. On occasion, she would curtsy or flip her hair in a very “Disney princess” fashion, slightly taking away from her character who is supposed to be representative of social progress and equality. Still, she was incredibly convincing during her song, “Watch What Happens,” revealing her inner conflict between the movement of the newsies and her romantic feelings for Jack.
I was particularly impressed by the acting aptitude of the young Nolan Reinbold, who played the youngest newsie, Les. Reinbold was obviously comfortable on stage, and he articulated his lines well. He was also able to keep up with the dancing of the older cast members, even when the choreography was fast-paced or intricate.
Jack Kelly, played by Greg Dowse, may be the best actor for this role I have ever seen. Not only was Dowse a powerful singer and a confident performer, but he also seemed to make the character his own. Dowse would occasionally flash smiles at the audience, building a relationship with them and showing true emotion through his body language and facial expressions. After Crutchie was taken to the refuge, Dowse as Jack Kelly sang with true resentment for the Delancey Brothers (played by Gabrielle and Davis Borg) and the situation—Dowse sang with conviction and anger, his face turning red, veins visible on his neck. Dowse seemed to do more than just play his character; he became Jack Kelly.
Finally, though not a major character in this musical performance, Kent Norton’s portrayal of Governor Teddy Roosevelt was absolutely remarkable. Norton spat his condemnations in the face of Pulitzer, and he gave sage words of advice in the style only the 26th American President could. Norton was hilarious, heartwarming, and talented theatrically all at the same time.
The moment that stood out most to me during this entire production was when Crutchie was taken to the refuge. In all other performances I have seen of Newsies, Jack Kelly just seemed to disappear during the moment Crutchie was taken, but the true heart and soul of Jack Kelly was depicted in the Draper Arts Council’s amphitheater performance. Just to the right of the stage, Jack could be seen, arms outstretched, calling out for Crutchie, all while being pulled away by his fellow newsies. Brilliantly done, DeMill and Swanson.
Alan Menken’s unforgettable music in a classic Disney story was expertly told on the Draper Amphitheater stage. I wouldn’t be surprised if the entire neighborhood got goosebumps during the performances of, “The World Will Know,” and, “Seize the Day.” Directors DeMill and Swanson were insightful in their approach to this beloved story, creating a dazzling show that I would happily see again.