By Melissa Arnold
This summer, the John W. Engeman Theater in Northport is transporting audiences to a New York City of long ago in its production of “Newsies.” This feel good, family-friendly show, which opened last Thursday, is thoroughly entertaining and will have you rooting for the cast from start to finish.
“Newsies”’ journey to the stage is an interesting one — the show is based on the 1992 Disney movie of the same name, and made its Broadway debut in 2012, where it won two Tony Awards. The book was written by Harvey Fierstein, with music by Alan Menken (“Beauty and the Beast,” “Aladdin”) and lyrics by Jack Feldman.
Both the film and musical are loosely inspired by the real-life events of the Newsboys Strike of 1899. The newspaper business was booming in 1898 while the United States was involved in the Spanish-American War. But when the war ended in September of 1898, so did the clamor for news. And this is where “Newsies” begins.
In the summer of 1899, a ragtag group of Lower Manhattan paperboys are lamenting the slow news climate, and famed publisher Joseph Pulitzer is brainstorming ways to boost his profits. At that time, newsies purchased their own papers from the publishers to sell on the street. Pulitzer decides to hike the prices the newsies pay, and since most of the kids are poor, homeless or trying to support their families, the backlash is immediate.
Led by the charismatic and scrappy 17-year-old Jack Kelly, the kids form a union and declare a strike. The show chronicles the uphill battle Jack and his friends face to be taken seriously and shines a light on unfair child labor practices of the era. At the core of “Newsies” is the power of resilience, community and standing up for a cause — and that spirit is as relevant today as it was then.
Under the direction of Igor Goldin, this production’s cast features a number of actors making their Engeman debut. Among them are Dan Tracy, whose confidence and comfort on stage give his portrayal of Jack Kelly a lovable swagger. Tracy does a great job balancing Jack’s tough guy exterior with a more hidden tender side, which shines through in songs such as “Santa Fe” and “Something to Believe In.”
Mike Cefalo and Zachary Podair, who play the rookie paperboy Davey and his kid brother Les, are also new to the Engeman. The pair have a natural chemistry and strong voices — listen for Cefalo in “The World Will Know” and Podair in “Watch What Happens.” As the youngest member of the cast, Podair is charming and funny, and he’s sure to have a bright future ahead in acting.
Whitney Winfield, in the role of Katherine Plumber, certainly holds her own with a big voice in “King of New York” and “Something to Believe In.” Her character is loosely based off of reporter Nellie Bly, who was a trailblazer for working women and female journalists. Winfield plays the role with a contagious positive spirit and moxie.
The ensemble is every bit as enjoyable as the main cast. Worth noting is their incredible talent for dance — choreographer Sandalio Alvarez and dance captain Claire Avakian are to be applauded for their hard work. “Newsies” is full of pirouettes, backflips, cartwheels, jumps and more tricks that will blow you away. Even the curtain call is an impressive showcase for their skill, where you can tell the cast is enjoying the show as much as we are.
The double-decker set designed by DT Willis depicts a Manhattan street, with metal staircases, a fire escape and a cityscape background. The set is multifunctional, transforming easily from a rooftop to the city square, a deli, theater and office with some quick work from the cast, who also functions as stage crew.
With every show at the Engeman, it’s the little touches at the theater that make the experience extra special. Show up early to enjoy one of several “Newsies”-themed cocktails, listen to ragtime or put yourself on the front page with their crafty wooden newspaper prop. Feel free to ask the staff to take a photo — they’re easy to find in old-time flat caps and suspenders. Be sure to check out the playbill for some fascinating information on the show’s historical background.
The John W. Engeman Theater, 250 Main St., Northport will present “Newsies” through Sept. 2. Tickets range from $73 to $78. For information or to purchase tickets, call 631-261-2900 or visit www.engemantheater.com.
All photos by Michael DeCristofaro