TOP

In Good Company’s ‘Newsies,’ these lords of the dance know how to soar

One of the most challenging things when writing about dance is putting action into words. A choreographed move that takes just a few moments on stage can require multiple sentences to describe.

Take, for example, the best known (but surprisingly fleeting) signature dance move from the Good Company Players musical “Newsies,” which is energizing theatergoers at Roger Rocka’s Dinner Theater through July 14. I think of it as the “Newsies move,” and it is often featured on posters for the show.

Pictured above: Jacob Phelen, left, Shawn Williams and Maya Gengozian in ‘Newsies.’ Photo: Good Company Players

How to describe it?

For help, I turn to Shawn Williams, who plays Davey in the show and is one of GCP’s best dancers.

“It starts with a left chassé,” he says. “Then you step onto your right leg, push off the ground from both feet, propelling into the air while kicking your left leg in front of you; while your left leg is rising reach your left arm over your left leg while bringing your right leg into a back attitude. This all happens on counts 5-6-7-8, then land gracefully on count 1.”

SPONSORED CONTENT


He calls it The Newsies Signature Jump a la Kaye™ (yes, including the trademark logo) in honor of longtime GCP choreographer Kaye Migaki, whose job was to translate the famed dancing in the Broadway production to the local stage.

And what a job that was.

Migaki is used to adapting choreography from contemporary Broadway shows and making the numbers work on the small stage at Roger Rocka’s Dinner Theater. But “Newsies” was an extra challenge.

Thanks to a Netflix special filmed version of the show, audiences across the country have witnessed the incredible athleticism and precision of the Broadway company. Obviously, it would be difficult on a local level to achieve the same level of choreographic prowess attained by a cast that included some of the country’s best dancers.


The Munro Review has no paywall but is financially supported by readers who believe in its non-profit mission of bringing professional arts journalism to the central San Joaquin Valley. You can help by signing up for a monthly recurring paid membership or make a one-time donation of as little as $3. All memberships and donations are tax-deductible.

“I was worried we wouldn’t have the people who had that gymnastic or acrobatic ability to do some of that stuff,” Migaki says. “When you look at the guys on Broadway, every one of them was an acrobat or gymnast, or a ballet dancer, who knew how to do all those big jumps. Plus, they have a much bigger stage!”

But with 150 people turning out for the GCP auditions, she found a core group of dancers who have been leaping, tapping and sweating through the run. They have something in common: They got the Migaki stamp of approval in terms of not just their technique but their courage.

“It really takes nerve, too, to do those kinds of jumps, not just skill,” she says.

 

◊     ◊     ◊

 

Williams has long been a standout dancer on the GCP stage. He’s been in show-stopping tap numbers in such titles as “The Drowsy Chaperone” and “The Will Rogers Follies,” and he’s choreographed tap numbers for the Junior Company.

With his long, lean dancer’s build, he brings a smooth, compelling self-assuredness to his movements on stage. As Davey, the somewhat quiet newsboy who breaks out of his shell to help lead a labor action against newspaper publisher Joseph Pulitzer, he gets to take a leading role in the big second-act tap number “King of New York.”

Shawn Williams, third from left, takes a leap in ‘Newsies.’

Tap is a tactile thing, he says, a clackety interplay between one’s ankle and Achilles heel. We’re sitting backstage in May, talking just a week before “Newsies” opens, and the theatrical air around us still has that slightly unsettled feel, that ambiguity of a show still in flux. Once tap gets into your blood, it’s hard to stop.

“I’m tapping right now,” he says, glancing under the table. “You just made me aware of it. I’ve been doing it this whole conversation.”

Another thing about tap: It’s hard to fake it. Sure, you can shuffle along a little, but in terms of crispness and precision, you either have it or you don’t.


Related stories: Review: Fresno’s ‘Newsies’ strikes a note of Broadway dazzle in Good Company production

And: FOR JACOB PHELEN IN ‘NEWSIES,’ THE STARRING ROLE OF JACK IS A CHANCE TO SING, DANCE, KISS AND TELL

“Someone who is new to dance can more easily pick up on the Broadway-style dancing — it’s easier to make it look good for the audience,” Williams says.

The toughest number in terms of sheer physicality, though, is the anthem “Seize the Day,” which relies not on tap but on ballet-inspired leaps.

“In terms of how much you’re sweating and panting after the number, ‘Seize the Day’ wins,” he says.

For Migaki, the rehearsal process was like another audition. She taught everyone the moves. Those who could handle them got the spotlight.

“I gave everybody a chance,” she says. “I taught the choreography, but I told everyone, this is not a class. If you can’t do it, you’re just going to rock out on the side.”

She ended up with a group of eight excellent tappers who make what they do look easy.

 

◊     ◊     ◊

 

One of those who didn’t always make the cut for the harder dancing moments was Jacob Phelen, who plays Jack Kelly, the leading role.

Phelen freely admits that his dancing was not the thing that got him cast in the show.

“I am not a triple threat,” he says.

For this interview, I’m once again sitting backstage at Roger Rocka’s, but this time, it’s seven weeks later, after the Sunday matinee. Phelen has had plenty of time to perfect his dance steps.

What was it in terms of dancing that he couldn’t do at the beginning of rehearsals?

Good Company Players

Jacob Phelen in ‘Newsies.’

“All of it,” he says, laughing. “I mean, I’m just not really flexible. There is one kick in “Seize the Day” that every time I do it, I feel like I’m just half as high as everybody else. The stuff in the air is the hard stuff for me. I’m just not I’m not built that way, man. I’m not aerodynamic.”

He did take a GCP introductory tap class open only to “Newsies” cast members, so that helped.

Actually, Jack doesn’t really dance very much in the production. (It was the same in the Broadway version.) He’s too busy singing, wooing and wisecracking. But when I watched the second act again, six weeks into the run, he seems more confident in his choreographic moments compared to the opening weekend performance I attended.

The same goes for everyone else. There’s an extra spark of precision, a settled-in feeling of confidence, that fills such numbers as “Seize the Day” and “King of New York.”

There might not be quite the level of acrobatic leaps we saw on Broadway, but it’s clear that Migaki pushed her dancers to some pretty impressive heights. And that’s important.

In my review of the show, I wrote that “the real star of the show is the corps of newsies themselves. (And let’s not forget the gaggle of “boys” includes some pretty terrific girls, too.) There is an appealing camaraderie here — a sense of family — carved out with appealingly rough-hewn strokes.”

The precision of the dancing becomes a metaphor for the closeness of these characters. They share some pretty tough everyday challenges, and when things turn remarkable — confronting the business leaders of New York and going down in history, say — their togetherness counts.

For Phelen, the experience of slowly becoming a dancer has been wonderful. If you’d told him six months ago that he would be starring in a GCP show, he wouldn’t have believed it. And if you’d told him he’d be dancing, he just would have laughed.

“I believe I’m dancing about 12% better than when I started,” he says, “so that’s a plus!”


Show info

‘Newsies,’ a Good Company Players production at Roger Rocka’s Dinner Theatre. Continues through July 14. Tickets (some including dessert or dinner) are $32-$60.

Covering the arts online in the central San Joaquin Valley and beyond. Lover of theater, classical music, visual arts, the literary arts and all creative endeavors. Former Fresno Bee arts critic and columnist. Graduate of Columbia University and Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. Excited to be exploring the new world of arts journalism.

donaldfresnoarts@gmail.com

Leave a Reply