Theater Review: Newsies by Pioneer Theatre Company

The success of Pioneer Theater Company’s new production of Newsies can be judged by the scene I witnessed after walking out of the Simmons Pioneer Memorial Theater on opening night. Waiting along University Avenue, presumably for their parents to come pick them up, were three teen-aged girls. Dressed in nerdy versions of that age group’s full dress up and, in fully pubescent awkward glory, the trio was belting out the show’s second-act show stopper “King of New York” and giggling and belting and giggling and then belting some more. If that isn’t a five-star review (with braces) for Pioneer Theatre Company’s exuberant production of Newsies, I don’t know what is. It is worthy praise, PTC had these girls and the rest of the packed house eating from their hands.

Square-jawed, wisecracking Jack Kelly (Johnathan Shew) is a hard-working newisie, with dreams of getting out of New York and going, for some reason, to Santa Fe. Jack is the de-facto leader of a turn-of-the-century-army of cast-aside children in jaunty caps who sell New York’s daily papers during the height of the yellow journalism period. Conflict ensues when Joseph Pulitzer (William Parry) raises the wholesale cost of papers from his plush office far above the newsies’ daily struggle. Jack, with a push from a book-learned ragamuffin named Davey (Stephen Michael Langton), blunders into a job as union boss and orders a strike.

Judging from the packed house, PTC has a hit on its hands. I have seldom seen as full a house as I saw on Friday night. And although, it made me lament the half-filled seats for challenging productions like last season’s excellent King Charles III, PTC is, after all, in the seat-filling business. And apparently what gets butts in seats in Utah is a sunny, anthem-ridden musical about, umm, a bloody labor dispute on the mean streets of New York? That’s right, underneath the shiny, belt-ey tunes of Newsies is a gritty tale of the workers of the world uniting. Based on the events surrounding a two-week strike in 1899 by children workers against the unfair practices of none other than Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst this play must have Joe Hill smiling in his grave. As an aside, the cognitive dissonance between Utah audiences who vote Republican and then sit with gusto for two hours to watch a passion play about the internal drama of a labor action literally blows my mind.

But, hey Disney makes sure it’s a real fun labor action full of big optimistic songs and lots and lots of dancing and jazz hands. Kelly, is played charmingly by Shew, who has the requisite good looks and big old Broadway-caliber pipes necessary for the part. Despite starting out with a few opening night yips, he carries the show from its opening song to its final triumph. He does an excellent job of playing the peaks and valleys that our hero experiences on the way to victory.

Backing him up are love interest (and scrappy glass-ceiling attacker) Katherine (Nadia Vynn) and his consigliere Davey. Vynn is way fun to watch. I loved her solo “Watch What Happens” where she plays both cheekily and sincerely the uncertainty of challenging her own boundaries and reaching for success. But it was Langton who blew me away. A recent performing arts school graduate, he more than fills the shoes of the intellectual wing of the newsies’ movement. He has a great (!) voice and really pulls off a tricky part as a kid in over his head, who rises to the occasion with, eep, plucky aplomb. Basically, watch this kid. He’s got a bright career ahead.

With the exception of Vynn, the va-va-voom Bowery theater owner Medda Larkin (Cicily Daniels) and her showgirls the Bowery Beauties (Katryna Williams aand Amanda Wright) this is a large cast of dudes—dudes who have to know how to dance. Casting director Bob Cline must have cleared out the boys from every ballet program west of the Mississippi to fill out this bill. The dance numbers, helmed by choreographer (and director) Karen Azenberg, are a blast to watch and you could literally hear the Utah girls in the audience sighing every time the boys leapt. (“Sigh: If only I could find a man who could dance. Sigh.”) The dancers really hit their marks during the “King of New York” number, which also featured the standout ensemble character Race played by Matt Bauman. His cigar-chomping newsie is one of the brightest spots in the backing cast. Bauman gets it, the whole 1899 schtick and he can sing like a bird. His voice often emerges with clarity from the back row. Be sure to keep an eye on him throughout the show.

The grown ups, Joseph Pulitzer and Teddy Roosevelt (Richie Call), bring a nice steady hand to their performances. Although I really think the audience should boo Parry when he comes out for his curtain call. He is after all the villain.

So there it is folks, a great show, perfect for the whole family. What better way to indoctrinate your children on the whys and wheretofores of socialism and organized labor? Newsies continues at the Simmons Memorial Theatre on the University of Utah Campus for an extended through Dec. 20. Go see it! Tickets and information here.

Jeremy Pugh
Jeremy Pugh
Jeremy Pugh is Salt Lake magazine's Editor. He covers culture, history, the outdoors and whatever needs a look. Jeremy is also the author of the book "100 Things to Do in Salt Lake City Before You Die" and the co-author of the history, culture and urban legend guidebook "Secret Salt Lake."

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