REVIEW BY JAIME ZAHL OF LONG ISLAND ARTS SCENE
Over the years, CM Performing Arts Center has continued to impress Long Island audiences with top-notch production value, talented casts, and crowd pleasing seasons of musicals. Their latest show on the marquee, Disney’s “Newsies”, is no exception. While community theatre often teeters towards hyperbole in its marketing, CM’s #BroadwayinOakdale hashtag is well-earned.
I have been fortunate enough to witness two performances of the Broadway production – one featuring Jeremy Jordan and the rest of the original cast – and the regional premiere at the John W. Engeman Theater at Northport last summer. With that being said, I can happily report CM’s production soars above the bracket of community theatre with its production of “Newsies.”
The buzz of opening night created an air of excitement in the theater – shared by the cast, the onlooking production team, and the audience. Only a few minutes into the “won’t be able to get it out of your head for a week” opening number, “Carrying the Banner,” the audience met the cast with thunderous applause as the ragtag ensemble of newsboys filled the stage. It delightfully sets the tone for what’s in store for the next two hours or so with male dancers executing backflips and leaps with ease.
For non-“fansies” – the self-proclaimed name of fans of the cult classic musical film turned hit stage production – the plot revolves around newsboy Jack Kelly and his fellow “newsies” as they face off against newspaper giant Joseph Pulitzer after he hikes up the price of the papers for the young workers. Although Harvey Fierstein’s book takes many liberties – like the original film – the musical is based on the true story of the Newsboys’ strike of 1899.
Bobby Peterson steps up to the plate as strike-leader Jack – a natural choice after working as a swing for Engeman’s impressive production. Mr. Peterson radiates the inherent bravado of the character while balancing the vulnerability he tries to hide. His vocals are equally impressive – especially with challenging songs like Act I finale “Santa Fe.”
Mr. Peterson is in good company with Hans Paul Hendrickson and Jojo Minasi as his right-hand men. Mr. Hendrickson – last seen as Joseph in “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” – plays Crutchie, providing both endearing comedic relief and pathos. The part is inherently written to create a beloved character and Mr. Hendrickson uses that to his advantage, stealing many a scene. He shines brightest in the quieter scenes of the show, especially the emotional “Letter from the Refuge” – added to the musical for touring productions and remaining for licensing.
Meanwhile, Mr. Minasi plays Davey – a new newsboy who left school to work while his father recovers from an injury. While Jack is the face of the strike, Davey is the brains of the operation. However, he finds his own voice over the course of the show and inspires his fellow newsies with the heartfelt “Seize the Day,” showcasing Mr. Minasi’s impressive vocal and acting abilities. By his side is his little brother Les, played by the talented young Ray Zerner – who earns the honor of being the first actor in the role I’ve actually found endearing despite the cliche kid one-liners.
And, of course, it wouldn’t be a Disney musical – or a musical at all – without a love interest. However, “Newsies” improves upon the characters of Davey’s sister and a male reporter in the film by fusing them into the fleshed out character of Katherine Plumber – a plucky, female reporter covering the strike. Emily Sarra does a fine job in the role as she zips the newsboys with cheeky comments despite her ultimate affection for them and their cause. Ms. Sarra seemed to slightly struggle with the challenging solo “Watch What Happens” in terms of finding a moment to breathe, but she ultimately ended the number with gusto as she belted out the final notes.
“Newsies” has no shortage of supporting roles. Gregg Sixt embodies a worthy villain for the newsboys as Joseph Pulitzer. While I wish Alan Menken – despite his incredible talents – penned a stronger song for the character, Mr. Sixt executes “The Bottom Line” perfectly. Meanwhile, Shaina Stroh is an absolute delight at vaudeville diva Medda Larkin, an ally for Jack Kelly and his friends. Her big number – “That’s Rich” – seemingly comes out of left field in terms of plot, but Ms. Stroh charms with natural charisma and shows off incredible vocal chops. Additionally, Brendan Noble stands out with an appearance as then-governor Theodore Roosevelt.
However, the heart of the show is within its ensemble of newsies. It is obvious that each member of the cast is putting in 500 percent as they perform number after number of leaps, kicks, and other challenging pieces of choreography. All the while they are able to carve out specific personalities for their characters. It is a sheer feat to bring together so many male triple threats together on one stage, but CM has done it again!
With this production, director and choreographer Ashley Nicastro has cemented herself as an undeniable asset to CM and the Long Island theatre community in general. In addition to “Newsies,” she also choreographed the production of “Evita” currently running at Smithtown Center for the Performing Arts. I am excited to see what this young director and choreographer does next.
As always, the rest of the production team does a phenomenal job of building a professional quality set (designed by Patrick Grossman), designing an impressive array of costumes (Ronald Green III), and keeping the show running smoothly.
CM Performing Arts Center is a gem in its community – allowing audience members to see professional quality shows at reasonable prices. If you’re looking for an exhilarating night of family friendly entertainment, “Newsies” is the production to see.
“Newsies” runs from May 18 to June 8. Visit CM Performing Arts Center’s website for tickets and additional information.