Michael L. Quintos
- Associate Los Angeles Theatre Critic
Admittedly, I have such a nostalgic soft spot for Disney's 1992 live-action movie musical Newsies, a favorite guilty pleasure of mine that began when I was a young(er) musical theater nerd and continues today. Funny enough, I was one of the few who actually paid to see the film on the big screen on its opening weekend, so, of course, I was a little saddened to learn that the movie became a box office bomb during its initial theatrical release.
But despite middling reviews and a low movie turnout, the film—written by Bob Tzudiker and Noni White and directed by Kenny Ortega—miraculously went on to become a quiet hit on home video (yes, kids, back when people went to a video store to rent or buy a movie on tape!). It soon earned a rabid cult following, particularly amongst young audiences of the era who enjoyed the movie's songs, dance numbers, and charismatic characters. Finally, I didn't feel so alone—it felt great knowing that many loved it, too, despite its flaws.
So naturally, when a stage adaptation of the movie finally went from mere rumor to actual, honest-to-goodness fully-produced stage musical in 2011, "Fansies" like myself became understandably excited. At long last, the musical inspired by the real-life New York City Newsboys Strike of 1899 is finally going up on a theater marquee! Even better? Not only do audiences get more songs written by composer Alan Menken and lyricist Jack Feldman for the stage adaptation, we also now get a brand new book from Tony Award-winning playwright Harvey Fierstein, too!
The resulting stage adaptation of “NEWSIES - The Musical”—which transferred to Broadway in 2012—was a huge, instant hit, even earning a couple of Tony Awards for their efforts. Not only did my love of the property get elevated, I became an even bigger Fansie all over again.
Just like the show's likable, tenacious characters, this similarly likable, plucky musical endears itself to theatergoers quickly and makes you root for it wholeheartedly, as we witness the birth of a youth-instigated revolution, and seeing the power of the little guy taking on the mighty. Though the adaptation still has some minor rough patches (perhaps the same flaws that plagued the source material), the otherwise fun stage iteration is still a winning one overall—and quite a significant improvement from the film, if I may add (and I'm still a fan of the original). Filled with high-energy music and dancing and a lively, eager-to-please spirit embedded in its DNA, the terrific stage adaptation of “NEWSIES” is a genuinely enjoyable iteration that makes it one of the most entertaining stage musicals that is also suitable for all ages.
It's no surprise, then, that a brand-new Southern California regional theater production of the musical is similarly enjoyable. Keeping much of the original stage show's inescapable excitement and joyfulness intact, McCoy Rigby Entertainment's new local production of “NEWSIES”—which continues performances at the La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts through June 24—is a wonderfully caffeinated jolt of a stage show, highlighted by a remarkably talented and athletically-blessed ensemble that leaps and belts one show-stopping number after another. That's no exaggeration—the show had so many moments when the show had to pause for enthusiastic applause.
Admirably directed and choreographed by Richard J. Hinds—with rousing musical direction from Brent Crayon—La Mirada's “NEWSIES” aims to be an amiable hybrid between the popularly-received original stage show and a new iteration that feels fresh for us Fansies forever obsessed with the earlier Disney-backed production that played Broadway and went on tour for a few years. It's quite a laudable task to undertake, and for many instances throughout the production, this La Mirada mounting does achieve feeling separate and new.
Though the paired-down sets credited to David McQuillen Robertson and Fourth Wall Scenic didn't feel as visually and as frenetically imposing as the Broadway and touring production's sets, they still did the job of selling the setting and the time period well, as do the rented costumes from Main State Music Theatre, Steven Young's striking lighting design, and Josh Bessom's enveloping sound design. A few momentum-pausing staging choices aside, the overall production is a top-notch, Broadway-caliber presentation that proves itself worthy of the loud reception it received during its recent press opening night performance Saturday evening.
Between the excellent singing voices, the engaging, fact-based story, and the stunningly high-octane dance numbers, this “NEWSIES” definitely seizes the day. And, of course, what truly made this new production so thoroughly enjoyable is the ferociously dynamic performances that explode out from a cast of triple-threats brimming with youthful energy and palpable can-do attitudes. Those latter two qualities, naturally, helped enormously in convincing us of their characters' struggles in the story.
And just like the film that inspired the stage adaptation and this subsequent regional production, the central figure in this fact-based tale is orphan artist Jack Kelly, the charming, alpha-male head newsboy who valiantly leads his fellow low-wage earning peers to form an impromptu union and to strike against Joseph Pulitzer and the other powerful New York City newspaper owners for arbitrarily raising the price of 100 newspapers up a dime to 60 cents.
Playing this lead role is the impressive Alex Prakken, who gives his take on Jack a street-smart and street-tough persona that's countered by his Cheshire cat-like grin. A bad boy with a heart of gold, Jack is confident yet sensitive, rough but thoughtful—qualities essayed beautifully by Prakken to make his role seemingly more layered. His musical performances as Jack are also the most intensely-sung I've seen thus far of the role, particularly his manically-intensified first act closer "Santa Fe" that had me worried he was going to accidentally leap off the high scaffolding in his performance gusto. The last time Prakken was in a production of “NEWSIES” in Southern California, he was with the final touring company in 2016 playing Oscar Delancey. I have to say, it's nice to see ensemble members graduate to the lead role later on and do it well.
Though Jack may be at the center of “NEWSIES,” the show itself is a large ensemble piece and thus the production makes room for many of Prakken's co-stars to shine right alongside him. As Jack's love interest Katherine, the female cub reporter who breaks the story of the Newsboys strike, Beth Stafford Laird proves herself to be a captivating and equalizing sparring partner with Prakken's Jack. The pair's contentiousness which later blossoms into flirtation adds an unexpected romantic cuteness to the proceedings that wasn't there in the original movie. And with her lovely singing voice, she gets to belt some nice high notes in "Watch What Happens" and is welcomed into the boys' club by tap-dancing up a storm with them during "King of New York" that had the audience cheering for a long time.
Other cast members worth noting include Daebreon Poiema, who is a divalicious delight as Medda Larkin, Jack's friend who owns a local music and burlesque theater. Her one beautiful early solo in "That's Rich" makes a compelling case for this show to expand her repertoire in some way. The adorkable Austyn Myers, who plays Jack's closest friend Crutchie, easily steals the audiences' sympathies with his portrait of Jack's crippled pal with an always positive outlook. I'm happy that this regional production retains the new song ("Letter from the Refuge") that was written for the character on the national tour, which Myers performs pleasingly with great humor and touching melancholy in the show's second act.
There's also Josey Montana McCoy, who does an exemplary job as Davey, an untrained fresh Newsboy who reluctantly joins the workforce alongside his younger brother Les (the husky-voiced wunderkind Travis Burnett, who has great comic timing) to help out their dad who was laid off because of the ongoing trolley strike. McCoy—whose costume actually looked more Fiddler On the Roof than Newsies compared to his co-stars—has a really nice, strong singing voice, and it is quite fun to watch him morph into the brains of the Newsboys Strike operations and later becoming a make-shift lieutenant and adviser for Jack. And the menacing Joseph Pulitzer is played here by Paul Schoeffler with great bombast, proving himself to be a worthy adversary for our main hero. I also like his TED-talk like musical approach to Pulitzer's solo in "The Bottom Line."
And, of course, what would “NEWSIES” be without its spectacular company of "papes"-sellers and Bowery beauties? Though many get to step out into the spotlight a bit more than others, together these awesome, genuine triple-threats are really what make this show so entertaining. Even some of the over-affected acting from a few ensemble members can be adorably forgiven, given the fierceness of their unabashed intensity in really wanting to perform a great show for us—and by all accounts, these talented young people really succeeded in giving the audience exactly that.
When they all sing in powerful harmonies together on such audience favorites as "Carrying the Banner," "Seize the Day," "The World Will Know," and, most notably, in the defiant rallying cry "Once And For All," the whole audience breaks into large, long-lasting cheers. With that said, congratulations to the hard-working, very talented members of this ensemble: Steven Adam Agdeppa, Tatiana Monique Alvarez, Zach Bez, Michael Brian, Doug Carfrae, Patrick Thomas Cragin, Steve Gagliastro, Marc Ginsburg, Kyle Goleman, Jesse Graham, Brandon Halvorsen, Michael James, John Massey, Andre Darnell Myers, Nate Odell, Katie Perry, Tanner Richins, Samuel Shea, David Smith, Vinnie Smith, and Chris Villiain.
If you have thus far resisted in seeing a production of “NEWSIES” live on stage, La Mirada Theatre's newest production is well worth experiencing.
** Follow this reviewer on Twitter: @cre8iveMLQ **
Photos from the La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts' production of Disney's “NEWSIES” The Musical by Jason Niedle.
The McCoy Rigby Entertainment presentation of Disney's “NEWSIES” continues at The La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts through Sunday, June 24, 2018. The theater is located at 14900 La Mirada Boulevard in the city of La Mirada. Parking is Free. For tickets, visit www.LaMiradaTheatre.com or call (562) 944-9801 or (714) 994-6310.