The Utah Festival Opera & Musical Theatre launched its 2019 main-stage offerings with a rousing production of Newsies, an old-fashioned, crowd-pleasing musical.
Working with a cast of mostly UFOMT newcomers, director Michael Jenkinson recaptures much of the enthusiasm and charm that made this musical a favorite with both regional theater and Broadway audiences. Jenkinson deserves special credit for also serving as choreographer for Newsies; performing such double-duty is no mean feat for a production renowned for high-energy dancing.
Newsies first appeared in 1992 as a movie musical released by Walt Disney Studios. The film was a theatrical flop but has since become a cult favorite on cable TV. The story was revived 20 years later as a stage musical, with the addition of some new music and slight changes to its cast of characters. That stage production played successfully on Broadway and has been a popular choice of regional theaters companies in the past decade.
The play’s admittedly corny plot is loosely based of the historic New York City Newsboys Strike of 1899. In the wake of victory in the Spanish-American War, the Hurst and Pulitzer newspaper chains were struggling for financial dominance in the Big Apple. When newspaper mogul Joseph Pulitzer attempted to raise the wholesale distribution prices for his New York World, the newsboys who hawked the paper throughout the city’s streets revolted.
Newcomer Derek DeRoo leads that uprising as Jack Kelly in the local production. DeRoo is a welcome addition to the UFOMT family. He opens the play with a heartfelt rendition of one of its few ballads and blends nicely with other cast members on several duets. As a native New Yorker, I can vouch for the authenticity of DeRoo’s “dese-dem-and-dose” Brooklyn accent and his later portrayal of a young man in the midst of a crisis of conscience is equally convincing.
For much of the show, DeRoo shares the stage with UFOMT veteran Stephan Espinosa as Crutchie, a handicapped newsboy. As usual, Espinosa fills that supporting role effortlessly and provides his trademark comedy relief.
Another welcome newcomer is Molly Dobbs, who is sensational as Katherine, a crusading female journalist who helps to promote the newsboy strike in a rival newspaper, The New York Sun. Ms. Dobbs has a beautiful voice, excellent comic timing and she can dance up a storm.
Other cast standouts are Timothy Stewart and Porter R. Harris as the Jacobs brothers and Meami Maszewski as the Vaudeville thrush Medda Larkin. Kudos also to the young members of the show’s ensemble; they sing their hearts out all night long.
But the cast of Newsies is at its best when they are dancing, which is a joyous, nearly non-stop experience. Using an almost exclusively male chorus line, Jenkinson has wisely chosen to make his choreography spirited and athletic rather than balletic. The UFOMT opening night audience responded with well-deserved cheers to the spectacle of young newsboys leaping, pirouetting and somersaulting across the stage in one production number after another.
But it was a tap dance number opening the second act that really brought down the house. Anyone who can watch Ms. Dobbs lead a dozen young chorus boys in a flawless tap dance without grinning from ear-to-ear has no business sitting in a live theater.
Unfortunately, it’s the more mature members of the cast of Newsies who deliver unconvincing characterizations. Given the Disney empire’s relentless dedication to being family-friendly, it’s perhaps understandable that the bad guys in this production would be two-dimensional, cardboard characters. The only exception to that oversight is local favorite W. Lee Bailey in an amusing cameo as Teddy Roosevelt.
Additional performances of Newsies are slated at the Ellen Eccles Theatre in downtown Logan through Aug. 2. For ticket information, visit utahfestival.org.