For Jacob Phelen in ‘Newsies,’ the starring role of Jack is a chance to sing, dance, kiss and tell
These are pretty heady days for Jacob Phelen, and it isn’t just the leather newsboy cap he uses to cover his noggin in “Newsies.” Six months ago, he would have been stunned if you’d told him he’d be playing Jack Kelly, the leading role in this popular show. He hadn’t even intended to audition for this particular Good Company Players title, but just sort of fell into it while trying out for GCP’s “Hairspray,” which was holding auditions at the same time. He still can’t quite believe he gets to take the final bow in the show.
“It’s a dream,” he says of the show’s run. “We’re almost done, and I still can’t believe it’s happening.”
When I saw “Newsies” for review, I was impressed by the sweet, streetwise swagger that Jacob brings to the role of Jack. After the show had been open for a while, I arranged to meet him for an interview backstage after a Sunday matinee. Here are excerpts from our conversation:
Donald: Did you think you had a shot at this starring role?
Jacob: When I auditioned I’d never seen the show before and I didn’t know the characters. I had never had this big of a role somewhere so the thought of getting such a big part … I wasn’t going to the audition thinking I was going to get Jack Kelly, you know. I was hoping I would get one of the Newsies, something fun to do, but I did not imagine that I would get the lead role. It was pretty cool.
Donald: I’m surprised that you hadn’t seen “Newsies” and didn’t know the music before auditioning.
Jacob: I actually didn’t even put it on my audition form and they accidentally called me to read a scene. I said I’d read it anyway. I took the scene to read and I went back and there was some girls where I was sitting and I just asked them who the characters were. So I pulled out the New York accent. I’ve always done voices. That was the easiest thing to pick up from the show.
Donald: Have you always been a singer?
Jacob: I remember I was in kindergarten or first grade and we were doing Christmas carols in class. I came to the teacher and said that I wanted to sing 10 songs. She said, well, you can do three. Yeah. I’ve always sung.
Donald: But acting didn’t come until later, right?
Jacob: Yes. Firebaugh, where I grew up, is a great place to be from, but it’s very small. Two stop lights. We didn’t have have much of a theater department in high school. One of the English teachers actually just started doing some shows my sophomore year and then junior year. They actually brought in a private company to help us put on some shows. They did “Les Miz,” which is really why I fell in love with musical theater.
Donald: Do you come from a musical family?
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Jacob: Absolutely not. I’m sort of a black sheep of my family. I have four siblings and they all did sports. My parents tried. It was just never my forte. I didn’t get picked first in P.E., definitely. The music I think, possibly is that my grandma would play piano in church. Still does. Definitely not a musical theater family. I think when my brother came it was the first show he’d ever seen in his life.
Donald: Now you’re studying voice at Fresno City College.
Jacob: I’m taking voice classes, but I’m not a voice major. I’m actually a biology major. I’m a science guy.
Donald: How much longer do you have at City?
Jacob: Oh man. I waste a lot of time. So I’m 25 now and I don’t have very much school done. Hopefully just a couple more semesters and then I can transfer.
Donald: And would you be a theater major at a university, or stick with science?
Jacob: You know, you can’t put all your eggs in one basket. I think is probably would be a big advantage, you know, especially if I were to move to somewhere like New York or L.A. being able to support myself doing something else besides theater while still hopefully following this dream.
Donald: What are three words you’d use to describe yourself?
Jacob: There’s so many words to choose from! Klutzy can describe me most days of the week, but I also like to think I’m passionate about the things I care about. And my third word would have to be nerd. I’m a sucker for Star Wars and comic books!
Donald: What’s the hardest thing in the show for you as an actor? (Minor spoiler alert for the reader: Skip this question if you don’t want to be surprised by a second-act revelation.) I was watching you today in the scene when Jack finds out that Katherine is actually Pulitzer’s daughter, and I thought you did a nice job of internalizing your disappointment and not overacting. What do you do every night when you face that moment?
Jacob: Yeah, you just have to put yourself in a place as if you’d been betrayed. I’m not some kind of professional Method actor, but I just tried to think … . How would Jesus feel when Judas sold him out? That’s where you’ve got to put yourself. Here’s this person that you trusted and cared for and was behind you in this big thing.
Related stories: Review: Fresno’s ‘Newsies’ strikes a note of Broadway dazzle in Good Company production
Donald: It’s always been a little weird to me that Katherine doesn’t say anything about her father to Jack.
Jacob: Maybe she’d feel that Jack wouldn’t trust her, wouldn’t let her write the story. It’s definitely one of the harder acting parts of the show. There’s a lot of hard singing, there’s hard dancing, but there are also some of those smaller moments that are hard to act.
Donald: Had you ever done a stage kiss before?
Jacob: Never. Well, okay. I actually take that back. I had a stage kiss my senior year of high school. Didn’t actually kiss her.
Donald: Because it was high school?
Jacob: Well, I don’t know. It was just awkward for me, I guess.
Donald: But the director didn’t make you.
Jacob: No, the director did not make me.
Donald: So, what, you have four kisses in “Newsies,” right?
Jacob: Five. (laughs)
Donald: How’s that going for you?
Jacob: Maya (Gengozian), as Katherine, is very professional. We’ve become good friends through the show. Now it’s just become part of the acting.
Donald: I was listening to some of the audience members and some of them are vocal, you know in terms of they’ll talk to you. I don’t know how much of that you hear.
Jacob: Every now and then. I’ll hear, “Jack, don’t take the money!”
Donald: So I heard three or four awws during the kiss. It’s interesting that you’re up there and you do this thing and it provokes this emotional response. People believe.
Jacob: Oh, absolutely. And that’s that’s the best part.
Donald: Has anyone else been really impressed with your performance in the show?
Donald: So it’s not just me.
Jacob: No, I have had a lot of people tell me that.
Donald: And how’s that make you feel?
Jacob: It gives me a lot of confidence. I’ve never been too much of a confident person, but hearing hearing the reassurance that I’m bringing the character to life in a way that moves people — it’s really a relief to hear those sorts of things.
Donald: Time for a couple of random questions. A newsie isn’t above making up a headline to sell a “pape” (paper). Give us a made-up Fresno-area headline you think you could sell on the corner of Maroa and Olive.
Jacob: I’m not nearly as quick-witted as Jack Kelly, but something like “Extra! Extra! Chicken Pie Shop reopening in Tower district!” may sell some copies. I know people were pretty disappointed with that shop closing.
Donald: Jack really wants to go to Santa Fe, New Mexico. Is there a “Santa Fe” in your life, i.e., a place you’ve always wanted to visit?
Jacob: Ironically, my Santa Fe may just be New York City. I grew up in a small town, and yet the big city has always sort of called to me.
Donald: There are a lot of guys in “Newsies,” and they sweat a lot. I was scared to go inside the men’s dressing room area backstage. How bad is it?
Jacob: Oh, it’s bad. We’re all pretty drenched by the end of Act 1, so throw Act 2 into the mix and it’s a recipe for disaster! Air freshener doesn’t quite do the trick.
Donald: Anything else you’d like to say?
Jacob: I would just say that being a part of “Newsies” has been an amazing experience. Everyone involved in the show is extremely talented and I’m honored to be able to work with all of them. Our director, Laurie Pessano, has really poured her heart and soul into the show and it’s a blessing to have her leading the “strike.”