Regional Reviews: Phoenix
Based on the flop 1992 Disney movie musical, and inspired by the real-life newsboys' strike of 1899, the musical is a turn of the century, David verses Goliath, story that focuses on a group of mostly orphan newsboys who deliver the news of the day in the papers they sell on the streets to the residents of New York City. When publisher Joseph Pulitzer raises the price the boys pay for their supply of papers, which he does only to boost his own profits, these "newsies" stage a protest. The group is led by Jack Kelly (Kale Burr), along with Davey (Devon Policci), the older of two brothers who are selling papers due to their father being out of work. They are inspired by the ongoing trolley workers' strike and their ability to organize themselves, forming a makeshift union to battle the powerful Pulitzer. With the help of Katherine (Kendra Richards), a young female reporter, they find some success but also quickly discover that there are many challenges when trying to get a group of young adults to go against the adult-run city.
Newsies features an abundance of showstopping numbers, including several rousing anthems. The score, with music by Alan Menken and lyrics by Jack Feldman, uses most of the tunes from the film plus a few new ones. Harvey Fierstein's smart, warm and funny book adaptation wisely expands on the screenplay by Bob Tzudiker and Noni White and features a few fun twists in the plot while also honoring the film screenplay and characters.
Bobb Cooper has done an amazing job directing this engaging musical with a stellar cast led by Kale Burr, who infuses tons of emotion, strength and charm, along with a powerful singing voice, into the commanding and heroic Jack. Burr manages to deliver plenty of nuance into this reckless and headstrong young man who quickly finds himself the leader of the newsboy gang. The character of Jack is also featured in many of the dance numbers, something that wasn't the case in a few previous productions of the show I've seen, and Burr contributes some expert dance moves. Also, Burr's "New Yawk" accent is spot on. As Katherine, Kendra Richards is appropriately spunky and headstrong, with a voice that soars. While most of the new songs are only adequate, the solo that Menken and Feldman have written for Katherine, "Watch What Happens," is an excellent character-based number that drives the plot forward and has some excellent rhymes. Richards does an exceptional job with this solo. Burr and Richards create realistic characters that have a fire in their eyes and a strong sense of urgency and justice in their hearts.
From a shy, quiet boy with downcast eyes, when we first meet him, to a smart, commanding man, Devon Policci beautifully shows the changes that Davey goes through better than anyone I've seen play this part before, including the original Broadway Davey. Nathaniel McNamara is hilarious as Davey's wisecracking younger brother Les. As Jack's best friend Crutchie, Riley Thornton makes all the right moves, including interjecting a big dose of humor and emotion, which results in a simply excellent portrayal. Crutchie's solo "Letter from the Refuge," which was added for the national tour, receives a rich, emotionally infused delivery from Thornton. With a keen sense of humanity beneath his villainess exterior, Jack Walton is superb as Pulitzer. You'd have no idea Walton is only 17 in how well he plays this much older man. As Medda Larkin, an older woman who helps Jack and his friends, Mia Johnson is full of warmth.
Cooper's keen staging adds energy and movement to the already lively production, and his ability to get rich, nuanced performances from his cast, several of whom play older adults with expert ease, is a testament to his exceptional directing abilities. Having dozens of youth actors, all 19 and under, playing the youthful characters in the show, adds a sense of realism to the entire production. Choreographer Tony Spinoza ensures the large male cast deliver, and deliver well, the requisite kicks, jumps, leaps, flips, pirouettes, and high-flying tap numbers. The rich, lush sound that Mark Fearey gets from the large cast and the 17-piece band is stunning, as is Jeff A. Davis' sumptuous lighting and Karol Rice Cooper's superb period-perfect costumes. The set, which includes several moving metal elements, is a rental, but one that works incredibly well on the large Herberger stage.
Newsies is a jubilant, thrilling, exuberant musical with numerous showstopping musical numbers. With an exceptional cast and direction and choreography that gets everything right, Valley Youth Theatre's production is one of the best youth productions I've ever seen.
Valley Youth Theatre's Newsies, through August 26th, 2018, at the Herberger Theater Center, 222 E. Monroe Street, Phoenix AZ. Tickets can be purchased by calling 602-252-8497 or by visiting www.vyt.com/home.
Book by Harvey Fierstein
Cast (in alphabetical order):