Note: The final two performances of Newsies were cancelled because of the coronavirus pandemic. The final performance was March 9. However, between March 20 and 29, the production is available to stream online.
OGDEN — Newsies is a touching Disney musical (with book by Harvey Fierstein, music by Alan Menken and lyrics by Jack Feldman) about news boys in New York at the turn of the century fighting for fair treatment and rights in their job. The Zigfeld Theatre in Ogden added an element to the production that opens their doors to another group who must fight for recognition. The production team of this show decided to introduce ASL or American Sign Language into their show. Each actor varies with the amount they sign through the show, but most have at least a little, a beautiful nod to another culture.
This production opens with a touching prologue of “Sante Fe” performed by Max Carter as Crutchie and Dylan Brinkman as Jack Kelly. From the first moment the actors start signing instead it adds something personal to the performance, and really brings each character to life. The cast of newsboys and girls are undoubtedly a huge part of the ensemble and support throughout the show, and these actors were incredible to watch. Choreographer Bryan Andrews (in his capacity of an understudy) showed his skill in both direction and dance. Each of the dance numbers had some amount of sign language crafted into the choreography, incorporating the entire experience in with ASL. Andrews brings his own life into the production, using sign he learned as a child of a deaf adult and perfectly brings the language and dance together. The actors creating this personal touch that would be unavailable with an interpreter. I applaud the cast for being dedicated enough to learning the signs for each of their lines.
The use of sign language was not perfect in its execution, as there were some actors who did not sign at all throughout the show, and instead had their lines projected on a screen at the back of the stage. This was a great idea in concept, but there were some complications with the execution. There were moments that either the screen or actor had the incorrect words, and the timing was off in several places as well. This kind of technical mishap did not detract overall from the show, but could only serve to improve the quality if corrected.
Katherine Plumber, played by Kenzie Stinger, is a new character for the stage version of Newsies. She serves as a female lead who is fighting for her rights in an otherwise woman-free environment and a love interest for Jack Kelly. Stinger brings plenty of power and sass to the role as she succeeds in making the character her own. However, Stinger’s vocal performance needed some tightening of rhythm and pitch, but was still generally suitable. The relationship between Katherine and Jack well played and had some insightful dynamics. Brinkman as Jack Kelly delivered a raw and beautiful performance. His interactions and relationships with other actors were well-developed and intuitive. Brinkman’s voice had a rough quality to it that brought depth to the character and brought out emotions that were surprising but real. Whether alone, or paired with Stinger, Brinkman’s performance was well tuned and impressive.
Director Caleb Parry made several unusual decisions for this show, including but not limited to the use of ASL, news girls and casting some actors in multiple roles. The choice to use newsgirls (actually dressed as girls—and not costumed as boys) was an interesting one that works for most purposes. This worked well to add some diversity to the cast, but put a little strain on the suspension of disbelief when these young actors also played other female characters in the show, such as when some of these “girls” doubled as full-grown women in a burlesque show. This same problem was seen through the rest of the cast when several actors were seen playing strangely different characters. Most notably, the choice to cast Tyson Allred as both Snyder and Mr. Jacobi was very difficult to watch. Snyder is one of the large villains of the show, and Mr. Jacobi is an ally of the newsies. To put the same actor in a position of being a villain and an ally lessened the impact of both characters, especially when there was no clear difference between the portrayal of the characters.
The highlight of this production is the use of ASL as the primary language for characters Davey and Les. These characters had two actors for each, one for ASL and another for voice. While the ASL actors, Boston and Callie Gunther, took the forefront of the performance, Wyatt Welch and Hinckley Wright spoke and sang their parts. The dynamic between the four actors was absolutely riveting, and it was a precious experience to watch the interactions among them. The pinnacle of this effect was seen in “Once and For All” as the entire cast crouches while Boston Gunther stands tall and proud and signs beautifully while Wyatt Welch stands back and sings the words Boston Gunther signs. The solo standout moment for this signing actor was chillingly beautiful.
The most fitting words to describe this production of Newsies are “riveting” and “engaging.” The effect of actors signing their words, with hard of hearing actors being included in a play traditionally confined to hearing performers is something incredible for a small theatre in Ogden to take on. This cast and crew should be proud of their astounding production.