By Jane Primerano, drama & music critic
When the book for the musical Newsies was written in the early 1990s by Harvey Fierstein, newspapers were still a monolithic force. They were necessary to understanding the world.
Things had changed since the setting of Newsies. The 14 daily newspapers in New York City had shrunk to three. But the names Pulitzer and Hearst (along with Newhouse) were still the big names. And getting a newspaper was essential.
The newsboys’ strike of 1899 was a significant event, although Fierstein didn’t follow the story line religiously. Newsies wasn’t a big hit when the movie musical came out in 1992, but it soon became a cult favorite and was produced as a play, premiering at the Paper Mill Playhouse in 2011 and making its Broadway debut at the Nederlander Theater in 2012. Today, there is a poignant tone to the show as the force of newspapers has diminished so precipitously over the past few years, but it’s still a great evening out.
Centenary University’s production, which started Friday, Nov. 24, and runs through Sunday, Dec. 10, captures the poverty of the time, the desperation of the children who had to work to support their families, assuming they had families, which many didn’t. A spare stage set and smoky lighting helped set the mood.
When Centenary produces as holiday show, the cast is made up of regular Centenary State Company actors, members of the Young Performers’ Workshop and Centenary Students. Newsies is a perfect venue for this, with young newsboys up to Gov. Roosevelt and Joseph Pulitzer.
Cast members of all ages blended together well in this production.
Jake Jackson (left) stars as Jack Kelley, the leader of the newsboys. A student at County College of Morris, Jackson has an extensive resume in musical theater. He was a perfect Jack, handling the songs and dances and the ups and downs of the character like a seasoned professional.
McKenzie Custin (right) returns to the Centenary state as Katherine Plummer. Custin’s crisp, versatile voice is a treat. She handled the part of tough reporter/heiress/girl falling in love beautifully.
Much of the appeal of Newsies is the dancing. Michael Blevins, who also directed the show, did the choreography. As is common with Blevins’ shows, the dancing was brisk and acrobatic.
The tap number at the beginning of Act II was especially robust. Two standouts were Saquan Williams as Albert and Jonathan Tanigaki as Mush. Williams’ series of flips look like he’s going to launch himself into space. And Tanigaki is smooth and balletic as he flips and spins across the stage.
Other standouts are Samille Ganges as Medda Larkin and Patrick Cogan as Gov. Teddy Roosevelt. It was fun watching CSC Artistic Director Carl Wallnau (below, with Jackson) as the deliciously evil Joseph Pulitzer, and the role gave him a rare chance to show off his singing on the Centenary Stage.
The orchestra was placed to the right of the stage where there is usually seating. That may have been part of a problem with sound during Act I. Some of the dialogue was difficult to understand, and the mic-ing seemed uneven. The problem was ironed out by Act II and should not be a problem for the rest of the run.
Take time out from the busy holiday season to spend a couple of hours enjoying the nostalgia, the music and the terrific cast of Newsies.
Newsies will be performed at the Sitnik Theatre in the Lackland Performing Arts Center, 715, Grand Ave., Hackettstown, through December 10. For information and tickets, call the box office at 908.979.0900 or online by clicking here.