Encore Stage and Studio’s youth theatre program coins itself as “Theatre by Kids, for Kids!”
Young people not only act in the show; they also work backstage as well as building the sets and arranging the props. Their current production is “Newsies,” a play based on a 1992 Disney movie.
While the film was not well-received upon release, it eventually developed a cult following and inspired a successful Broadway musical which ran for more than 1,000 performances.
Because the musical involves mostly children and adolescents as protagonists, this makes it a perfect vehicle for a young theatre group to produce. The strong potential for “Newsies” was recognized early on by Sara Strehle Duke, executive director of Encore Stage and Studio, who responded positively after seeing the film.
Like the movie, the musical “Newsies” is set around the year 1899 and based on actual historical events. The “newsies” of the show’s title are working-class children, often orphaned, who work as newspaper sellers; they make their living on the difference between the wholesale price of the newspapers they sell and the retail price they charge their customers. Unfortunately, for the newsies, the newspapers start raising their wholesale prices, a move which threatens to impoverish the young entrepreneurs.
The main character of the show, Jack Kelly, with prompting by a young female reporter, organizes a strike, an action to which the papers respond in a hostile manner, hiring strikebreakers and occasionally thugs to try to break the newsies’ spirits. Historical personages who appear in the show include publisher Joseph Pulitzer and Theodore Roosevelt, the then-governor of New York.
In this reviewer’s opinion, “Newsies” is an exceptionally difficult show to stage because the grim poverty of orphaned newsboys and the violence of strikebreaking must be balanced against the lightness of a musical comedy script and songs.
Happily, the audience’s reaction to the Encore Stage performance shows that this production succeeds at this challenging task, thanks to outstanding performances by the young cast, first-rate direction by Elizabeth Pringle, and simple and yet complex sets which also serve as a homage to the Disney movie.
The cast includes adolescents as well as adults. Kyle Dalsimer is excellent as Jack Kelly, with his youthful challenge to an oppressive establishment. His acting is strong, and his performances of the songs “Santa Fe” and “Carrying the Banner” at the opening of Act I convincingly establish the character’s strong and forceful personality.
Emma Kiely-Hampson is similarly excellent as female reporter Katherine Plumber; her vocal solos are simply spectacular. That is especially true in “Watch What Happens” as her character gradually raises her profile in covering the newsies’ strike. Shannon McCarthy, as Medda Larkin, a vaudeville singer whom the newsies meet, performs with panache the song “That’s Rich.” Ben Hemmens is also in excellent form as Joseph Pulitzer, the main antagonist of Jack Kelly.
A production of “Newsies” cannot stand on individual performances alone, however, no matter how good. The show also depends heavily on the tap work and choral singing of the supporting cast.
The Encore Stage supporting cast succeeds here marvelously, tap dancing with exuberance in this production (particularly in the opening to Act II), guided by the outstanding choreography of Anneke Collins. The cast rises equally to the challenge in chorus numbers such as “Seize the Day.”
The quality of the show is made all the more remarkable by how much its youthful participants drive the show.
Noah Thirkill, one of the set-builders and himself a recent high school graduate, described the production as follows: “What is most impressive about Encore Stage and Studio is its drive for children to take the initiative. Ironically, ‘Newsies’ is about adults stifling any initiative by children or even allowing them to have a fair say. But in the creation of this production of ‘Newsies,’ it is the children who take center stage. Children made the set, and everything on stage was built from scratch by children. The sawing, the measurements, the drilling, and many of the ideas all came from the kids. Many of the Encore children at the age of 13 now have more experience with sawing, drilling and measuring than most adults!”
Would-be viewers of this show should note that there is only one week left to enjoy this youth-centered production; the final performance will be on July 28. In the words of the show, seize the day – and the tickets!