By Jennifer Mustoe
I’m sitting here at my computer, pondering how to write my review of Pioneer Theatre Company’s glistening production of Disney’s Newsies. With almost every production I see, I think, wow, I hope my readers go see this show. At times I have even insisted they come. With Newsies, if I could pick you up, drive you to Salt Lake City, park, take you to your seat and encourage you to sit through this glittering production of Newsies, what I would get in return is the hugest Thank You you’ve ever given to another human. PTC’s Newsies is really that good.
I have never seen Newsies and purposely waited this year to see the Pioneer’s production. I’m a huge fan of this professional theatre company, so I anticipated an amazing production. What happened was I was blown away.
Okay, okay, enough gushing. For now. I’ll give you the deets.
Disney’s Newsies, by Playwright Harvey Fierstein, Composer Alan Menken and Lyricist Jack Feldman tells the tale of the Newsboys Strike of 1899 in New York City, that forced Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst to pay the newsboys better. Based on Disney‘s 1992 movie Newsies, the story is brought to crazy amazing life onstage and is pretty much one of the The Ten Musicals One Must See in This Life. Walking into the theatre, you are immediately transported to a grungy street where the homeless newsboys sleep. Does this sound dark and horrible? Well, it isn’t. It is stunning in its design and this set, by Scenic Designer George Maxwell, deserves its own bio. From the beautifully painted sky in the background that changes from night to day, to the building facades, to the lines of laundry that are lowered in appropriate scenes, to the moving structures that give the stage wonderful levels–it is the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen. Period. So, excitement mounts as soon as you enter the theatre.
Jack Kelly (Jonathan Shew), a fictional character, leads his tribe of newsies to strike. His first number, “Santa Fe” helps us understand that he is yearning to get OUT of New York and dreams of living life on a ranch and seeing the world from the back of a palomino. Okay, I actually own a palomino, and Jack’s got a pretty good idea. But the song shows how difficult life is for a dreamer, a person who is living a life he does not want. Jack is an orphan, as most of the newsies are, and their reluctant leader. Shew has amazing skills in being strong but also gentle and vulnerable; tough and kind at the same time. That and his amazing voice, dance skills, and handsome face make him the perfect lead for Newsies. We immediately flip to Pulitzer’s office, with its solid wealth and stability and we see Pulitzer machinating to find a way to make even more money. We hate the avaricious Joseph Pulitzer, and William Parry, with his strong voice and worldly air creates a delightfully hate-able character.
Two boys then get into the story–boys who actually have a home, but must work because their father was injured on the job and has no union protection. To care for the family, Davey (Stephen Michael Langton) and small-and-adorable Les (Maxwell Rimington–also played by Brandon Smith), hit the streets and learn how to sell “papes” from Kelly and Crutchie, played by Austin Archer. Langton has an amazing voice, and is reprising his role as Davey after performing this role for the 1st National Tour. He slides into this role beautifully and provides a lovely nuanced message. Here is a young man who is from a family with real live parents, is educated, could actually be Something, but the times being what they are, is on the streets, selling papers. Langton has a gentle but lively strength, and is powerful as he lights the other newsies on fire about the strike. Rimington is darling, throws his lines and songs out with professional grace and skill. Every time he was onstage, I could feel the audience sigh with the Oh-Isn’t-He-Cute sigh we save for children who rock the live stage. Utah favorite Archer is back from New York City to do Newsies. I’ve seen him perform or seen productions he choreographs and directs, and he always does a stellar job. As Crutchie, he doesn’t dance, but has the opportunity to show off his acting chops. Crutchie is the ultimate sad case from a very sad time: he is an orphan, lives on the street, can’t walk properly (and worse as the musical progresses). However, he also represents the love, caring, and support the newsies have for one another. He is his own message of hope. Archer pulls this off nicely with a sensitive affect and warmth in his performance.
The other lead is the lovely Katherine, played wonderfully with much spunk and joy by Nadia Vynn. Every time she was onstage, I sorta forgot to watch anyone else. As to her story in Newsies, I’m keeping my mouth shut. Suffice it to say, she is an excellent reporter and kind to all. All of the rest of her story is for you to see when you go see the show.
Two other important characters are one we love and one we don’t. Medda (Cicily Daniels), the owner of the bawdy house, sings a song that will singe your ears, it’s so good. She is a powerful energy onstage and I wish she had more songs. Snyder (David Guy Holmes), of the eye patch, sneering face, and ready fists, is the heavy in the show and he slinks onto the stage like a snake. Boy, we sure didn’t like him, which is a nod to Holmes’ acting ability.
Newsies is a musical, and the voices, the dancing, and the costumes that are ever-present in musicals are only more fantastic in this production than I’ve seen anywhere else, ever. I’ve been to Broadway, peeps. I’ve seen shows in California and Utah and elsewhere. It doesn’t get any better than this. Vocals, led by Music Director/Director Tom Griffin are stellar. Don’t we love a live orchestra and the Pioneer’s is outstanding. Each song is a joy. Delicious costumes, especially those worn by Katherine, are the brilliant creations of Costume Designer David Kay Mickelsen. The stage glows with these costumes and the layers of colors, the fun stripey socks, the vests many of them pulled on when they were on their way to doing something–all of it is really delicious. But really, Newsies wouldn’t be what it is without inventive, over-the-top dancing. Director/Choreographer Karen Azenburg has taught her cast to fly! The jumps, the twists and turns, the sheer activity that goes on onstage is startling. I found myself just anticipating the next big number to see what the cast and ensemble would do. I don’t need to know the story–just let me see the dancing! I whispered to my companion several times things like, Isn’t that amazing? Her face was alight with wonder. That’s what the dancing is in Pioneer’s Newsies: wonderful, as in full of wonder.
The whole package is outstanding. Simply amazing. There are a lot of very good shows out right now in Utah. ‘Tis the season. But no matter what, do not miss Newsies at the Pioneer. It is a production unequaled by anything else. It has a feel good quality to it that transcends the holiday season. It’s for every day, and forever.
Pioneer Theatre Company presents Disney’s Newsies by by Playwright Harvey Fierstein, Composer Alan Menken and Lyricist Jack Feldman
Simmons Pioneer Memorial Theatre, The University of Utah, 300 1400 E #205, Salt Lake City, UT 84112
December 1-20, 2017, Monday-Thursday 7:00 PM, Friday, Saturday 7:30 PM, Saturday Matinee 2:00 PM, a “Post Script” with the cast of Newsies 12/11 9:45 PM
Tickets: $42 (day of show $47), $64 (day of show $69)
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