LOGAN — I’ve been a fan of Newsies and Alan Menken’s music since the movie version came out when I was kid. I’ve performed many of the songs, and I love the story and its characters. But then what kid isn’t enticed by the story of independent newsboys fighting and winning against oppressive adults? Although more recent in my esteem, the Broadway version with lyrics by Jack Feldmen and book by Harvey Fierstein is also a tremendous work. The Utah Festival Opera and Musical Theatre produced a show that thrilled this fan and honored the original. While the production still has room to improve, there were many excellent moments and touching individual performances.
From the first scene, Crutchie, played by Stefan Espinosa, was a standout character. Beyond making the limp and the accent immediately believable, Espinosa brought a shining sincerity to Crutchie. Throughout the show, Espinosa’s vocals were amazing, his comedic timing impeccable, and his earnest acting touching. The chemistry between Crutchie and Jack Kelly, played by Derek DeRoo, was the strongest of any of the relationships in the show.
In the next scene and during the song, “Carrying the Banner,” two newsies really stood out for their triple threat skills: Race played by Cory Betts and Albert played by Sam Lariviere. Both demonstrated a deeper embodiment of their characters that also showed up in their excellent dancing. Their acting was more than believable; the two actors pulled me into their perspectives over their characters’ plights.
In general, there was some really excellent dancing throughout the show. I’ve never been so happy to have so many reprises, because I got to keep watching powerful dancers leaping and spinning on stage. The dancing had the youth, joy, and resilience that is the underlying theme of the Newsies characters. In so many wonderful ways, the whole show was a dance, thanks to director and choreographer Michael Jenkinson.
However, the energy was off in some of the big musical numbers, especially towards the beginning. There were some really nice big moments in, “The World Will Know,” and, “Seize the Day,” that made me catch my breath. But then there were other places where the songs sort of lagged. I couldn’t tell if it was because the orchestra seemed to overwhelm the vocals in volume, another technical issue, or just opening night jitters effecting their dancing, but the outcome was a stuttering energy in, “Carrying the Banner,” “The World Will Know,” and even a few times in, “Seize the Day.” The overall impact was lessened because the energy didn’t build to a point. However, I have no doubt that this brilliant group will work those energy issues out in subsequent performances.
I loved the style of the vocals in this show. They were the right mix of Broadway and Brooklyn, thanks to dialect coach Michael Shipley. Espinosa’s performance of, “Letter from the Refuge,” showed such range in his voice and in his acting. In a short song, Espinosa portrayed fear, pain, doubt, optimism, selflessness, sincerity, and humor. The effortless switching between speaking and his beautiful singing was a real highlight of the night. Molly Dobbs as Katherine Plumber did a great job during the fast, “Watch What Happens,” switching between the tricky speak-singing with a fully supported voice. I would have loved to hear Méami Maszewski, who played Medda Larking, sing more, because she has a rich and resonant voice. Maszewski’s unique styling choices to the song, “That’s Rich,” were memorable. Timothy Stewart playing Davey Jacobs was a vocal strength to the show and the ensemble in crafting tight harmonies, especially during the reprise of, “The World Will Know.” My favorite vocal moment went to DeRoo’s “Santa Fe.” At Jack Kelly’s lowest moment, when the police violently broke up the newsies’s protest and his best friend Crutchie gets taken to the Refuge, DeRoo brought such raw vulnerability to the melody. DeRoo put emotion before technique, and the effect was deeply moving.
Like many of the cast, DeRoo’s acting also had several brilliant spots. The monologue before the number, “Santa Fe,” and his speech to unite the newsies were compelling and powerful. Dobbs’s Katherine had the right balance of intelligence, honesty, and pluck, and Dobbs demonstrated excellent comedic timing. However, the chemistry between Katherine and Jack was lacking or at least not built up enough for the kiss to feel real. Stewart’s choices in playing Davey, the newsie that has a home and family, helped set him apart from the newsies. Stewart’s whole carriage was different, which was key in portraying a smart boy fairly innocent of how the world actually works and who is desperate to grow up. While acting, this physicality worked really well, but while dancing, the physicality made Stewart look stiff. Several minor characters were refreshing and funny, such as Mr. Jacobi played by Cary J Youmans, Pulitzer’s secretary Hannah played by Amanda Compton LoPresti, and Broderick O’Neal‘s Romeo.
The character I found the most lacking was Christopher Holmes’s Pulitzer. Holmes’s more operatic style of singing to portray the wealth and importance of his position was good, but his acting lacked the power I had expected of such a dominating man, therefore making the character unconvincing. I should have been a little afraid of him or of what he could do, and I wasn’t. The cast could also benefit from tightening up their stage fighting, which seemed false and under-rehearsed. The “punch” thrown by one of the Delancey brothers on Jack was badly timed, and the staging was so off that you could visibly see the hand slap.
The show shines technically as well. The set was a solid foundation for the action. The lighting supported and promoted the drama of the most powerful moments, such as during Jack’s speech to unite the newsies. The newsies’s costumes hit all the right notes of time period, of poverty, and of brotherhood. Katherine’s costumes had variety, showing her working girl garb and her daddy’s rich-girl gowns. Colleen Alexis Metzger’s attention to detail in Katherine’s costume for her tap dance added so much to the number: a perfectly pinned up skirt and periwinkle socks peaking through.
By the end, the energy was high and tight, just like the vocals. The final reprise of, “The World Will Know,” crackled with energy. I was ready to jump to my feet in applause by the “Finale” number. The volume balance with the orchestra had righted itself by the end, and I had forgotten the other misses until I looked at my notes. It was an entertaining and inspiring evening. Newsie’s fans and Newsies newcomers alike will enjoy this joy. It is definitely one to bring the whole family to. Bravo to UFOC for such a high-quality production.