Move aside, Jeremy Jordan. Some dude from Firebaugh has taken over your Broadway starring role in “Newsies” as the indefatigable Jack Kelly. You needn’t worry, Jeremy, about your replacement not living up to your acclaimed New York performance, though. He’s doing just fine in Fresno.
So who is this new Jack? His name is Jacob Phelen. And he has the right stuff: the swagger, wholesome face, scrappy New Yawk accent, honey-toned voice. Plus that newsboy cap.
Most important, this Fresno City College student, who is just coming off a role as Corny Collins in GCP’s “Hairspray,” has loads of charisma. You believe he could rally a motley group of boys — a bunch of orphans, wise-asses and downtrodden street urchin being squeezed by rich newspaper titans — and transform them into a potent, turn-of-the-century labor force.
Take that, Mr. Pulitzer. And the same to your Prize.
The best thing about the new Good Company Players production of “Newsies,” however, is that no matter how appealing Phelen is, this production is not just about any one actor. The real star of the show is the corps of newsies themselves. (And let’s not forget that 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.
Thanks to the intimate Roger Rocka’s stage, you’re close enough to learn their faces, laugh at their quirks and sympathize with their plight on an individual level.
Director Laurie Pessano puts together an enthusiastic, scrappy production that radiates goodwill and plays up its underdog spirit. Sure, the story of “Newsies” — loosely based on a real-life strike by newsboys against Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World and other papers in 1899 — has been appropriated by one of the world’s best known capitalist mega-corporations. Mickey Mouse’s owner isn’t exactly known for its coziness with organized labor. But smoothing the edges of tales from long ago is a Disney specialty, and “Newsies” offers such rousing anthems (the music is by Alan Menken, lyrics by Jack Feldman and book by Harvey Fierstein) that as a longtime union member, I’m willing to give it a pass.
But let’s get back to those newsboys. They’re a gregarious bunch who are not above making up headlines to sell papers. (A fella’s got to eat, after all.) And because most of them don’t have parents and are forced to sleep on the streets, their survival support system is strong.
As the musical opens, a rare pair of boys arrives, announcing they want to be newsies. Davey (an impeccable Shawn Williams) and his brother, Les (played at alternate performances by the engaging Vinnie Folmer and equally engaging Jackson Estep), Their father hurt himself in a work accident, and so his sons have to stop going to school and hawk papers on the street. (Later, we get a nice union plug for not ony better wages but also coverage of work-related injuries.)
Standout newsies include a sweet Diego Sosa as the soft-spoken Crutchie, whose limp helps him sell his “papes.” Peter Hartley is a kick as the blustery Race. Andrew Mikkelson, as the faux tough-guy Romeo, has the brightest smile on the entire stage, and he is one of the best in the ensemble in terms of inhabiting his character wholeheartedly every moment he’s on it. Connor Pofahl, as Henry, always feels focused. Little Kailyn Sanders,, one of the best dancers in the show, gives a petite, powerful performance.
Jack, Davey and the others are outraged when Joseph Pulitzer (Greg Ruud) raises the price that newsies pay for each copy of the paper. (And they can’t return the unsold copies for credit.) Soon they find themselves on strike against some of the most powerful men in New York.
All of this is framed by the team of Broadway Media Distribution’s beautiful and innovative projection design. Thanks to David Pierce’s cleverly designed set, it whisks us from such varied locales as the tenement skyline of New York to the basement of the New York World. The projections break lots of new ground for Good Company Players and the Fresno area in general.
One of the most moving moments in the show, in fact, is a direct product of those projections. Jack is a hugely talented artist, and he draws an image of Katherine Plummer (a strong Maya Gengozian), his new crush, while they sit in a theater operated by the sassy and outspoken theater owner Medda Larkin (played by Camille Gaston, who gets to belt out a number. I’ve never quite understood the need for Medda’s plot thread in “Newsies”; it’s the weakest part of the book.) As Jack “draws,” you see his pencil strokes in real time in the projection behind him. In an age of digital everything, this portrayal of Katherine doesn’t bombard the senses with quick-cut, flashy images; rather, it is a moment that unfolds in human time, and you can sense right there that Jack has some pretty strong feelings for her.
There’s so much else to acknowledge, including Ginger Kay Lewis-Reed’s costumes, Joielle Adams’ lighting, which complements the projections. But if you’re a big “Newsie” fan, your big question will be: What about the dancing?
It’s often very good. Choreographer Kaye Migaki has taken the flashy, acrobatic brilliance of the Broadway production’s challenging moves and nicely translated them to accommodate non-superstar dancers. Seriously, the Broadway production, which was filmed in a special Los Angeles production, will make you gasp in terms of the athletic leaps, tumbling moves and phenomenal precision. You won’t get quite that experience here, but you will find a nicely synchronized corps of dancers in some impressive movements.
Finally, there are the vocals, and they’re really what make the show for me. Phelen has a solid voice that he’s able to shape into a musical theater personality. Gengozian’s vocals have a bell-tone elegance, but she’s able to get a touch of grit into her smooth-as-butter delivery. Best of all are the ensemble numbers. The “Newsies” score is anthem-heavy, and vocal coach Laurie Bridges helps deliver an impressive wall of sound. The harmonies in the opening number, “The World Will Know,” are exquisite. And consider the lyrics:
Pulitzer and Hearst, they think we’re nothin’.
Are we nothin’?
Pulitzer and Hearst, they think they got us.
Do they got us?
Even though we ain’t got hats or badges,
we’re a union just by sayin’ so…
And the world will know!
If hearing that doesn’t make you want to support the strike, you’ve probably been management all along.