Regional Reviews: Phoenix
Also see Gil's review of A New Brain
Inspired by the real-life newsboys' strike of 1899, the musical tells the story of a group of mostly orphan newsboys who deliver the news of the day to residents of New York City by selling newspapers on the streets. These "newsies" stage a protest when publisher Joseph Pulitzer raises the price they must pay for their supply of papers, which he does only to boost his own profits. The group is led by Jack Kelly, who is inspired by the ongoing trolley workers' strike and their ability to organize themselves, along with Davey, the older of two brothers who are selling papers due to their father being out of work. However, the boys quickly discover that trying to get a group of kids to go against the adult-run city is harder than they thought.
The film score featured music by Alan Menken and lyrics by Jack Feldman, including several rousing anthems, all of which have been brought to the stage production with the songwriting duo also adding several new songs to fill out the score. Harvey Fierstein contributed the new book, which expands on the screenplay by Bob Tzudiker and Noni White. Fierstein's smart changes include turning the male reporter character from the film into a budding female journalist named Katherine, who serves as a love interest for Jack, plus adding several new fun twists along with humorous yet realistic dialogue, and a big dose of warmth. While most of the new songs are only adequate, the solo that Menken and Feldman have written for Katherine is an excellent character-based number that drives the plot forward and has some excellent rhymes.
The Phoenix cast is led by James Gish, as Jack, who instills the role with charm, strength and an abundance of street smarts and swagger, which works well for this natural born leader of the newsboy gang. Gish brings a perfect sense of urgency to the reckless young man who has a fire in his eyes. His singing voice is pure and bright and he infuses each lyric and line of dialogue with emotion and realism. Emilie Doering is appropriately feisty and spunky as Katherine, the headstrong reporter out to prove herself, and, like Gish, has a beautiful singing voice and a natural and strong delivery.
Rusty Ferracane does well providing some humanity to Pulitzer, the villain of the show, while Cooper Hallstrom and Joey Dean make a winning twosome as brothers Davey and Les. Hallstrom infuses Davey with intelligence and warmth, as well as a more polished accent, which works well since these brothers come from a slightly more educated and once wealthier family than their fellow orphan newsies. Dean does well as the humorous Les with good comic timing and a witty line delivery. Brandon Brown is perfect as Crutchie, Jack's friend who has a bum leg. He and Gish project a natural connection to each other as these two friends who have been through a lot together, and Brown's exceptional performance makes you care for his character as deeply as Gish's Jack does. Chanel Bragg is fun, feisty, and full of fire as Medda, the owner of a club and friend of Jack.
Director Michael Barnard keeps the show moving at a brisk pace and ensures his actors bring both realism and care to their characters. Choreographer James Kinney's dances are the perfect combination of ballet and athletics and he gives the large cast many chances to show off their wide range of abilities, including a spectacular tap number, "King of New York," that opens act two. Every member of the cast brings an infectious joy to the variety of movement and changing styles of dance.
Alan Ruch's music direction evokes beautiful, rich sounds from both the cast and orchestra. Scenic designer Robert Kovach uses a large movable set piece and a few smaller pieces to portray the tenements and various locations in the show which are lit beautifully by Michael J. Eddy. Cari Sue Smith's costumes are full of color and detail, including tattered tweeds and plaids for the newsies, crisp period suits for the businessmen and bright, colorful dresses for the woman.
Not only does this production have beautiful creative elements that perfectly establish the time, place and feel of the show, but there is nonstop, thrilling and exuberant dancing. The talented cast deliver on both the rousing and engaging turn of the century story and the numerous poignant moments that resonate, due to Michael Barnard's excellent and concise direction. Newsies at Phoenix Theatre scores in every category; it is an infectious jolt of pure energy and a crowd pleaser in the truest sense.
Phoenix Theatre's production of Newsies runs through December 31st, 2017, with performances at the Phoenix Theatre at 100 E. McDowell Road in Phoenix AZs. Tickets can be purchased at phoenixtheatre.com or by calling (602) 254-2151
Director/Musical Staging: Michael Barnard
Cast: (in alphabetical order)
*Members of Actors' Equity Association, the union of professional actors & stage managers in the U.S.