By Micha Green
AFRO Washington, D.C. Editor
From March for Our Lives, the Climate March and teens like environmental activist Greta Thunberg, who delivered an impassioned speech at the United Nations Climate Action Summit, the past couple years have proven that the world can become a better place with the activism of young people. Disney’s Newsies at Arena Stage, directed by Artistic Director Molly Smith, choreographed by Parker Reese and with musical direction by Laura Bergquist, audiences are reminded that it pays off to listen to the children’s voices when they speak, because they too, have opinions and ideas that can make a difference and find positive solutions to challenging times.
In the case of Newsies it’s 1899, there’s political division, the newspaper business isn’t as booming as it used to be, and prices are steadily rising. Sound familiar?
In Newsies audiences see Joseph Pulitzer, a rich man at the helm, who is jacking up prices to make money, without any regard to how it will affect the poor people selling his wares- the “newsies.” Again, sound familiar?
In the case of the “newsies,” or “newsboys,” these young children were ages nine to 17, many immigrants, orphans and those who were forced to live in the streets, who became entrepreneurs by selling their newspapers, re-working headlines to attract customers, and businessmen who made a life for them and sometimes their families. When Pulitzer’s prices became outrageous, these young people started an uprising and made their voices heard, at the risk of violence and arrest, until changes were made.
Smith couldn’t have picked a more perfect time to bring this feel good piece to audiences, while also offering a message.
“Think about the teenagers in Parkland, Florida creating nationwide action around gun violence who are arguing for sensible gun regulations after the massacre in their high school. These students created a March for Our Lives and a Peace Plan that outlines specific actions and legislation and pushed young people to register to vote. They moved beyond their hometown and created a national voice,” Smith wrote in the Newsies playbill.
“Greta Thunberg from Sweden, a 16-year-old climate warrior, started a movement by sitting outside the Swedish Parliament every day alone with a sign about our climate emergency and demanded action from parliament. A year later, millions of students worldwide have joined her by protesting every Friday,” Smith added.
Smith said, Newsies is the same story, over a hundred years ago,” and that’s most definitely the case as audiences watch the young people stand up for justice in the theatre-in-the-round production of the musical.
Audiences are left smiling and happy after the “feel good” musical, but there’s also a sense of fists in the air, ready for action. Let’s not get it twisted, there is a level of “Disney Magic,” that is quite infectious throughout the musical, and is emphasized by the strong singing, dancing and acting choices of all the actors on stage. However, it’s not all about the show-stopping dance numbers and songs; the message to listen to the children is evident throughout the entire production. Nonetheless, this review would be remiss in not mentioning some of the artistic moments that makes this production not only worth seeing for the message, but the great artistry seen on stage.
First of all, Arena’s Newsies has a beautifully diverse cast, that adds to the refreshing nature of the production. The casting choices are reflective of the world- different races, body types, and age demographics are featured.
Daniel J. Maldonado as Jack Kelly is a perfect casting. He has swagger, can sing, moves well on stage and is intentional about each acting choice. As the lead, he stands out, but also works beautifully with the strong ensemble of “newsies.”
Erin Weaver as Katherine Plumber does an honest portrayal of Katherine Plumber, that shows a clear battle of wanting more in her career, standing up for justice, fighting and desiring love and the struggle of going against family in order to do what’s right. In addition she has perfect comedic timing, and is a pleasure to watch on stage from the moment she enters.
Nova Payton as Medda Larkin delivers a show-stopping performance that had audiences roaring in applause. Payton’s voice is unreal. Her range and quality is incredibly pleasing to the ears, but the intention and emotional connection she puts behind every word and moment also makes her a joy to be on the stage. In addition, she commands the stage, particularly in the round, in such a way that allows her character to linger when she’s gone and makes audiences want more of her when she has not made an appearance.
Josiah Smothers as the youngest newsie, Les, is just so darn cute. He’s also an incredible actor, singer and dancer, who perfectly fits into the cast of seasoned performers, and also commands the stage with a comfort and gravitas beyond his years.
The ensemble is phenomenal and truly carries the storytelling and magic of the show. While all their moments are quite wonderful to witness, the tap number “King of New York,” is outstanding and one of the best numbers in the musical.
Finally, the design elements were also quite brilliant and perfectly added to the storytelling. The set, by Ken Macdonald, was intricate and yet efficiently moved which helped for seamless transitions and a clear indication of each setting within the musical. The lighting by Kimberly Purtell and sound design by Daniel Erdberg, added to the tone and mood throughout the production. The costume design by Alejo Vietti was so aesthetically pleasing, further helped in understanding the time in which the musical was set, and still had a level of pizzazz that was impressive for 2019 audiences.
By the end of the production, audiences understand why such a production is necessary in 2019 and are reminded of the importance of children’s voices.
Arena Stage’s production of Disney’s Newsies runs on Fichandler Stage until Dec. 22. For more information on the production or to get tickets, visit https://tickets.arenastage.org/events/27988.