Home Arts & Entertainment REVIEW: “Newsies” @ Lees-McRae Summer Theater

REVIEW: “Newsies” @ Lees-McRae Summer Theater

By Sarah “Rah” Bickley. August 2, 2019. BANNER ELK, NC — If you don’t have your ticket for “Newsies” at Lees-McRae Summer Theatre, go snatch it up today. The story is entertaining, and the song and dance numbers will send you floating out the door.

Four shows remain: Friday,7:00 pm; Saturday, 2:00 pm and 7:00 pm; and Sunday. CLICK HERE for tickets.

COVER IMAGE: Courtesy of Lees-McRae Summer Theater; Photographic images by Rebekkah Mexiner-Hanks

Based on the real story of the impoverished street children who sold newspapers to passersby in 1890s New York, “Newsies” opens in the grimy streets of the city. When the “newsies,” as they were called, learn that newspaper publisher Joseph Pulitzer is hiking up the price they must pay for each paper – they’ll have to sell 25 newspapers more a day to make the same lousy money – their leader, Jack Kelly (Troy Patrick) convinces the children to strike.

Enter girl reporter Katherine (Payton Moledor), who wants to break the story and get on the front page. She, Jack and brainy newcomer Davey (Jarrett Koski), come up with a plan to withstand violent attacks by the capitalists’ goons and spread the strike to every exploited working child in the city – “every kid in every sweatshop, factory or slaughterhouse.”

Newsies will send you home more inspired and warm-hearted than when you arrived at the theater.

Meanwhile, when Katherine “Plumber” – “It’s the name I write under,” she explains – begins to detect the artistic soul under Jack’s tough exterior, sparks begin to fly.

Justin Bulla and Gabriel Vanover add comic relief as the giggly, syncophantic editor and bookkeeper to the ruthless Pulitzer, who is played evilly by the physically imposing Michael Jones.

The muscular dialogue and lyrics are the heart of the show. The newsies sing “Kill the competition! Sell the next edition!” and everything unfolds in pungent New York accents.

Among the brightest lights of this young cast are the two male leads, Patrick as Jack Kelly and Matt Flocco as Crutchie, the lame newsie who is Jack’s best friend. Patrick infuses his character with honest vulnerability. He shows Jack daring to dream of “Santa Fe,” where he could find opportunity and love, even while he despairs of escaping his spot at the bottom of society. Jack is torn between a fierce resolve to win the strike for the newsies and a terror of putting them all in mortal danger. His humility (mixed with youthful cockiness) and loyalty to Crutchie make him an irresistible character.

‘Before you say water is nothing, just ask a fish in the desert.’

As Crutchie, Matt Flocco towers in his Act II scene where he sits in the juvenile lock-up, beaten and broken by the publishers’ thugs, and pencils a letter to Jack. “They soaked me pretty good with my crutch,” he writes. “… You tell all the fellas for me to protect one another.” It’s a brave message from a wretched place. Some actors would tend toward the maudlin here, but Flocco underplays it, making it more poignant.

Sam O’Brien, 12, one of the newsies, has some fun backstage before rehearsal. From Durham, NC, O’Brien and his family are summer residents of Banner Elk.

Other actors throw sparks of their own. Moledor, as Katherine, careens between hysterical and exultant as she tries to sit down and write the story that will make or break the strike – and her career. Medda (Sheena Murray), extravagantly costumed as the star-owner of a burlesque house, revels in her diva-esque number, “That’s Rich.” Jarrett Koski is winning as Davey, the earnest and zealous kid who starts out saying “Leave me out of this!” but ends up supplying the strategy and zeal for the big strike.

And scattered like gold coins throughout the play are Bob Haas’s various turns as the hard-shelled paper distributor Wiesel, the ironic barkeep Jacobi, and the aristocratic, lockjawed Governor Teddy Roosevelt. Haas, now in his 24th season with LMST, paints indelible outlines around every character he plays. Jacobi tells the penniless newsies who swarm his café only to order water: “Drink up, boys. Don’t say I never give you nothing. And before you say water is nothing, just ask a fish in the desert.”

Director Janet Speer’s directing and choregraphy lifts this show even higher. In the number “The World Will Know,” newsies dance to a drumbeat of defiance – they snatch off their cloth newsbags, beat them on the floor and whip them around their heads as menacing warnings to the publishers. In the triumphant tap-dance number “King of New York,” youthful joy pours forth. Sometimes you’ll be sitting in your seat and the actors will come singing past you down the aisle; it’s a thrilling theatre experience.

…newsies dance to a drumbeat of defiance.

Speer founded the Lees-McRae Summer Theatre (LMST), which uses professional, local and student actors. Many have grown up doing LMST plays, following the college’s motto “In the mountains, of the mountains, for the mountains.”

Among the Newsies locals are teenaged dancer Payton Franklin, the daughter of Lees-McRae alumna and frequent LMST cast member Burlene Franklin. Another is 11-year-old Ben Vergara (a descendent of Banner Elk’s Tate clan). As the brazen and cheeky Les, young Vergara steals scene after scene. To out-sell his big brother, Les grabs a paper, approaches a lady and makes a pathetic face. “Buy a pape from a poor orphan boy?” “Oh, you poor darling!” she says and gives him a dime. Les exults, “This is so much better than school!”

In the end, the show makes you want to march off and change the world, your arm slung around a buddy’s shoulder, dancing as you go. “Newsies” will send you home more inspired and warmer-hearted than when you came in.  Just what a musical is supposed to do.


CREDITS: Music by Alan Menken  |  Lyrics by Jack Feldman  |  Book by Harvey Fierstein  |  Based on the Disney Film written by Bob Tzudiker and Noni White | Originally produced on Broadway by Disney Theatrical Productions | Disney’s Newsies is presented through special arrangement with Music Theatre International (MTI). All authorized performance materials are also supplied by MTI. www.MTIShows.com.  


Rah Bickley


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