LEHI — It is summertime in Utah, and that means that local arts councils across the state are mounting their big community musical. This year, the Lehi Arts Council has produced Newsies, which is hugely popular in Utah. Even though the local rights for the play only became available in 2017, this is the 16th time UTBA has reviewed Newsies, making it the second-most reviewed musical in the site’s archives. But if every production of Newsies is as enjoyable as Lehi Arts Council’s, then I will be content reviewing Newsies for many years to come.

Show closes July 29, 2023.

Based on the 1992 cult film, Newsies is a highly fictionalized retelling of an 1899 newsboy strike. When circulation at Joseph Pulitzer’s World newspaper is falling, he decides to shore up his profits by increasing the newsboys’ costs from 0.5 cents to 0.6 per paper, which they sell for 1 cent each. This results in a 20% cut in the newsies’ profits, and with many already homeless and living in poverty, this is enough for them to strike. Leading the impromptu strike is newsboy Jack Kelly, and local reporter Katherine Plumber encourages him, seeing the story as her ticket out of writing play reviews and stories for the society pages and into hard news. This being a musical comedy, Jack and Katherine inevitably fall in love, but their relationship faces difficulties as the two characters’ needs clash.

Newsies is an old fashioned book musical, and the dramatic structure is the exact same as in Rodgers and Hammerstein‘s Cinderella. Harvey Fierstein’s script fixes the film’s (many) problems and shows that the traditional book musical holds up well in the 21st century. The score is one of Alan Menken‘s best, and Jack Feldman‘s lyrics are both accessible and sophisticated. In short, the play’s creators have provided theatre companies with everything they need to create an enjoyable show. Directors Kathryn and Howard Little have not squandered the top-notch material of Newsies. Their directing clearly tells the story, brings focus to the characters’ emotional needs, and consistently delivers the humor. I was also impressed by the realistic (and safe!) fight scene at the end of the first act and the excellent use of space throughout the production.

Luke Elison as Jack Kelly.

Luke Elison plays Jack Kelly so well that I could write an entire review just about his performance. Elison swaggers around the stage with unlimited confidence, establishing Jack as a natural leader for a labor strike. The acting performance from Elison is deeper than what is usually seen in musical theatre. Jack’s interactions with Medda Larkin (played by T’naiha Ellis) had the ease and familiarity of a long friendship behind them, while the concern for Crutchie (played by Justin Hendricks) gave Jack a tender side that rounded out the character nicely. Elison also is impassioned with his singing; he performs “The World Will Know” (the closest thing to a protest song in the Disney songbook) with fire and outrage, and “Santa Fe” is plaintive and touching. He is quite the dancer, too; Elison attacks his dance steps with boundless energy in “Carrying the Banner,” “Seize the Day,” and more. Normally, an actor who can sing, act, and dance well is called a “triple threat,” but the term does not adequately describe Elison because he is also a gymnast whose backflips and other tumbling increased the physicality of the dances.

In the role of Katherine, Sydney Dameron can hold her own with Elison. Dameron’s thousand-watt smile and natural charm give her a magnetic stage presence that enhances her scenes. She dominated “Watch What Happens” and milked every bit of character out of the song to establish Katherine as a complex person. I also enjoyed Dameron’s mastery of her character’s barbed wit, such as when Katherine tries to brush off Jack while she is reviewing a play, or their argument after Jack’s speech at the union meeting. Indeed, the scenes between Dameron and Elison are surprisingly complex, as their characters navigate their romantic feelings, their class differences, and their professional relationship. Both actors are adept at mining subtext and subtly adding nuance to their performances. But Dameron does not need a scene, a song, or an acting partner to impress. Her silent reactions and stage business are achingly believable. She makes even something as simple as accompanying a photographer to take a picture or watching the confrontation between Jack and Pulitzer her own little mini-drama that contributes to the realism of her scenes.

Sydney Dameron as Katherine Plumber.

Elison and Dameron are just two actors in a strong cast of 43. Indeed, I found myself pleased by how strong this cast was. Usually the casting pool in Utah County gets stretched thin, as more shows open in June and July in the area than at any other time of year. Yet, I could not find any weak links in the Newsies cast. While not all performers were as strong as the two leads, no one was inadequate for their role. Their singing sounds great (thanks to Kathryn Little’s music direction), and even if some of the line deliveries or performances were less believable than the leads’, every cast member still has a strong grasp of the fundamentals stage acting and knew how their character contributed to a scene. It is a talented group, and during act two I even wrote in my critic’s notebook, “I love this cast.”

Newsies is a dance show, and choreographer Rebecca Boberg worked hard to meet audience expectations for this beloved show. While some of her choreography is based on the recording of the Broadway production (available on Disney+), Boberg introduced enough new steps and movement to keep the audience surprised in “King of New York,” “Carrying the Banner,” and “That’s Rich.” The dancing is a mix of old and new that the actors executed with a high degree of accuracy. Most importantly, the dancing was youthful and energetic; I am at least twice the age of most of the ensemble, and just watching “King of New York” nearly tired me out.

Left to right: Luke Elison as Jack Kelly, Aaron Salazar as Les, and Cairo McGee as Davey.

Cali Wilkes‘s costume designs were the best technical aspect of the show. The main group of newsies were dressed mostly in tans, browns, and blues, but when the Brooklyn newsies (all female in this production) appeared on stage, the new group had greens and pinks in their costumes to distinguish them. It was a lovely juxtaposition of color in a busy scene. I also enjoyed the black and gold brocade vest that Joseph Pulitzer (played by Chad Taylor) wore, which conveyed the character’s extraordinary wealth. Elizabeth Griffiths‘s lighting design accented the upstage cyclorama well, and some of the sudden transitions (like the saturated yellow during the reprise of “Santa Fe”) or the sunrise lighting during “Watch What Happens” contributed to the mood of the show.

Newsies continues Lehi Arts Council’s current streak of excellent productions. The strong leads, athletic choreography, and smart direction make this production of Newsies a tempting choice in a crowded field of summer musicals. I recommend this show without hesitation.

The Lehi Arts Council production of Newsies plays Thursdays through Saturdays and Mondays through July 29 at 7:30 PM at Skyridge High School (3000 North Center Street, Lehi). Tickets are $12-15. For more information, visit lehiarts.org.