HERRIMAN — The hardest part of reviewing Herriman Arts Council’s production of Newsies is deciding which aspect of the show is the best. Was it the strong performances from the leads? The excellent music direction? The live orchestra? The impeccable direction? The only way for readers to know for sure is to see the show for themselves on closing night on Monday.
Based on the 1992 Disney film of the same name, Newsies (with a script by Harvey Fierstein, score by Alan Menken, and lyrics by Jack Feldman) is a retelling of a 1899 newsboys strike to protest an increase in their wholesale costs of buying newspapers to sell on the streets. It is a David and Goliath battle of street kids—led by the homeless Jack Kelly—taking on Joseph Pulitzer, one of the most powerful media magnates of the era. Allied with the newsies is Katherine Plummer, a female reporter trying to break out of reviewing theatrical productions (not that there’s anything wrong with reviewing theatre) and into hard news. This being a musical comedy, Katherine and Jack fall in love, which is complicated because Jack dreams of leaving New York City behind to live in Santa Fe.
Kristin Housley‘s direction is flawless. Whether she is creating intimate romantic scenes, or handling a stage crawling with dozens of ensemble members, Housely has a talent for combining the elements of a scene into a coherent whole that is entertaining and engaging. Especially compelling were the “stand and deliver” songs like “Watch What Happens” and “Santa Fe,” which were blocked and directed in a way that revealed a character’s inner emotions and built sympathy for them.
What I appreciated most from Housley’s direction, though, was her attention to detail. Housley knew the exact correct moment for Jack and Katherine to hold hands for the first time, the perfect way to have Jack and David react to Pulitzer’s office, and even how to turn a simple prop (Jack’s cowboy hat) into a symbol for the character’s dreams. It is gratifying to see the work of a director who does not let important details get lost in a sprawling, large-cast musical.
Leading the cast is Tanner Tate as Jack Kelly. From his first moment on stage, Tate is an engaging actor who can shoulder the burden of a leading role with ease. Tate has a magnetism that makes Jack a believable leader among the newsies. He also gives Jack a debonair style that makes “I Never Planned on You” a smooth charm offensive. Tate has a voice that sails through the score effortlessly; his rendition of “Santa Fe” is an impassioned desire for a better life, and he makes “The World Will Know” a fiery anthem for change.
Opposite Tate is Patrice Densley as Katherine Plummer. Katherine’s first appearance establishes the character as a no-nonsense, sophisticated woman, which pays off later when Katherine creates a plan to intensify the strike. Densley shines in “Watch What Happens” as Katherine goes from trepidation to determination in the course of the song. There is also some wonderful chemistry between Densley and Tate, and their romantic interactions seem to flow naturally.
Bart Sloan played Joseph Pulitzer with an air of authority and pride that made him a plausible captain of industry. Sloan has a sonorous singing voice that reverberates beautifully in the Rosewood Pavilion and makes “The Bottom Line” stand out.
Indeed, one of the greatest strengths of this production is the singing. Under Brent Rindlisbacher‘s superb music direction, this cast has unstoppable vocal power in “The World Will Know” and “Once and For All.” I also loved the perfect harmonies in “Seize the Day,” “Carrying the Banner,” the “Watch What Happens” reprise, and more. Herriman Arts Council is special for its use of a full-size live orchestra, which is now so rare in amateur productions that pit orchestras are practically an endangered species. Amy Stutzenegger is an attentive conductor, and her disciplined group of 18 musicians were an asset for the show.
Jenna Ahlman‘s choreography was at a typical level of complexity for arts council productions. Unfortunately, in a production where so much was excellent, “typical” ends up looking mediocre. Additionally, chunks of Ahlman’s choreography were based closely on the 2017 film of the play. When so much of this play was creative and unique, it was disappointing that the dancing—the centerpiece of Newsies—was derivative. Still, the choreography was not bad per se, and the cast executed the dancing with gusto and determination.
Emily Berbert‘s costume designs were visually appealing. Berbert dressed Joseph Pulitzer in a dapper period suit, complete with tails on the coat, a striking cravat, and shawl lapels on his double-breasted grey vest. Katherine had a striking red jacket in the first act that was a lovely match with her brown skirt with its subtle checks and red accents. (The lace trim on the petticoat peaking out from beneath her skirt was a nice touch, too.) One smart decision was to dress David (played by Geoff Beckstrand) in a shirt, vest, and tie in his first scene and have the character gradually dress more casually (losing the tie, rolling up his sleeves, etc.) as the play progressed and he identified more with the newsies.
It is clear, though, that the costuming budget was stretched with this large cast. A smaller cast would have had a more professional look for every ensemble performer. But the purpose of most arts councils is to give local citizens opportunities for artistic expression and development, and this production unquestionably meets that goal. I can live with the decision to cut some corners in the costuming department if it means that more people can be part of this memorable production.
UTBA reviews of productions from the Herriman Arts Council show an unmistakable pattern of excellence, and Newsies continues that tradition. The cast, crew, designers, have mounted a show that they can be proud of. There is so much to appreciate and love in Newsies, and I applaud everyone involved for bouncing back so successfully from the COVID-19 pandemic. For readers who catch this show on closing night, I recommend preparing for the heat: dress lightly and be ready to hydrate.