ALBANY — EXTRA! EXTRA! One should have excellent peripheral vision when watching Park Playhouse’s “Newsies” musical as the production value felt kinetic and yielded mesmerizing visuals throughout its props-adorned stage.
This “Newsies” adaptation is based on the 1992 Disney same-named musical film which had starred a young Christian Bale, which was then reimagined as a Broadway production in 2012.
It offered a romanticized lens into the real-life Newsboys Strike of 1899 in the dark, grimy streets of New York City, where young newspaper hawkers, or newsies, went on a roughly two-week strike against how prominent publishers Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst compensated their newspaper distribution.
The music was by famed Disney composer Alan Menken, lyrics by Jack Feldman and book by Harvey Fierstein. It is directed by Tim Nelson, choreographed by Ashley-Simone Kirchner and received musical direction by Brian Axford. Playing at Washington Park in Albany, its string of performances runs on Tuesdays through Saturdays at 7:30 p.m.; it originally premiered on Aug. 6 and will end this Saturday, Aug. 24. To purchase tickets, visit www.parkplayhouse.com/newsies or call Park Playhouse’s box office at 518-434-0776.
The production took advantage of a rotating set floor which helped scenes keep fluidly moving on, offering intriguing transitions as certain characters exit the stage while new ones emerge without the need for any awkward silence. The ensemble impressed the audience with their soaring vocals and dynamic choreography which, without Nelson’s succinct direction, would otherwise have fallen flat.
With the aforementioned rotating set, frequent props usage and seemingly umpteen musical numbers, it was an applause-worthy surprise that no missteps or slip-ups occurred throughout the performance.
Speaking of steps, Kirchner’s choreography also deserves a standing ovation as the young actors almost turned “Newsies” into “Cirque du Soleil” as they showcased scenes that included effortless cartwheels, tap dancing and smooth pirouettes. They also appeared fearless as they constantly scaled the rotating metallic structure at center stage which towered over the first few rows of the audience.
The production, despite its musical nature and youthful atmosphere, felt as if there were high stakes involved as the ensemble were not afraid to raise their decibels as they shot their defiant fists in the air in protest and some actors’ necks and arms even appeared taut with pronounced veins. What made the story relatable, despite its historical backdrop, was its underdog theme. The audience can root for the united newsies who demanded change and a voice for reason.
The cast mainly comprised of roughly 40 middle and high school students from throughout the Capital District, around 10 of whom are from the Bethlehem and Guilderland area, according to Park Playhouse Producing Artistic Director Owen Smith.
Smith — himself a student at Park Playhouse when he was 15 and graduated from Bethlehem Central High School in 2000 — said he decided last year to adapt “Newsies” for the Washington Park stage this summer because it offered more starring roles for students to play onstage than a production that otherwise would have just a few main roles, and it kept with the New York City theme that began with “In the Heights,” a musical Park Playhouse recently adapted from June 28 to July 27.
He added, “It also tells a really great story about people who wanted to fight for their rights to not be taken advantage of and I think that’s as resonant now as it was happening in 1899. We have our most advanced students and it’s really just a good choice for this year as we felt we had the right students to do it.”
Speaking of students, 14-year-old Frances Johnson, who will be in 10th grade at BCHS this fall, played Elmer and she said she wanted to return to Park Playhouse after enjoying being in last year’s “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.” She also expressed gratitude at how there has not been any canceled performances so far since they take place outside and she remembered that it was a rainy season last year.
Andrew Kirby, 14, played Specs; he will be in 10th grade at BCHS this fall like Johnson. Saying that he has been doing Park Playhouse productions for four years now, he said he has appreciated making friends and meeting new people throughout. He also complimented the production staff for their tireless behind-the-scenes work which helped make “Newsies” come alive.
Michael Jantson, 10, is the youngest cast member who is the only one still attending elementary school; he will be in 5th grade at Elsmere this fall. Playing Les who offers comedic relief in “Newsies,” he said he has always liked theater since kindergarten and he enjoys working with all the older kids. He added he initially had some difficulty learning the choreography but grew more comfortable with it after rehearsing more.
Michael’s 17-year-old sister, Catherine, is part of the ensemble and she will be a senior at BCHS this fall. Expressing gratitude for Park Playhouse’s role in exposing her to further develop her acting skills, she said she has been involved for four years now. “Honestly, performing at the park is just the best feeling in the world in front of all these people and seeing all the kids in the audience with probably the biggest smiles on their faces is probably my favorite part,” she said.
If you want to see the production for yourself, you are in luck. Performances are still happening through Saturday, Aug. 24 and for more information, visit www.parkplayhouse.com/newsies.