Review: Newsies at Street Lamp Productions

By Jennifer Gusso

DISCLAIMERPlease note, one or more persons directly involved in this production are immediate family or relatives of the Backstage Baltimore reviewer. The reviewer has vowed and striven to write an honest, fair, and  thoughtful review, regardless of his or her connection with any member(s) of the cast of this production.

Running Time: 2 hours and 30 minutes with one intermission

With the recent release of production rights, we are definitely in the midst of a great Newsies explosion. With one generation of those who grew up in love with the original Disney movie and a new younger generation that has fallen in love with the Broadway production (available in full on Netflix), many have waited breathlessly for the opportunity to perform in or see this show on the local stage. The story of a crew of lovable and determined young people standing up from the powerlessness of poverty to take a stand for what is right and fair against a conniving businessman is a tale that is both timeless and timely. For these same reasons, any local production has big shoes in comparison to the film, the Broadway production readily available for screening, and the growing number of current productions. Street Lamp Productions presentation of Newsies (Book by Harvey Fierstein, Music by Alan Menken, and Lyrics by Jack Feldman), Directed and Choreographed by Bambi Johnson, with Music Direction by Nikki Tart, doesn’t necessarily get everything right and definitely battles some challenges in their current production, but they do most certainly get the things that matter most just right and land with a production that will certainly entertain audiences of all ages and all levels of familiarity with the script.

The ensemble of Newsies at Street Lamp Productions. Credit: Street Lamp Productions Facebook Page

The story surrounds the actual historic Newsboys’ strike under the leadership of the fictionalized Jack Kelly (Art Bookout). Bookout easily channels the youthful energy and excitement of Jack. His vocals are inconsistent at times, but his tone is absolutely lovely when he lands squarely on the mark. Bookout also has a tendency to go small and intense with his darker emotions. While this is likely to work exceptionally well in a smaller space, those moments were sometimes swallowed up in the large stage that was being utilized at Rising Sun High School. One simple fix, which may have helped some of these moments—including “Santa Fe” and “Something to Believe In”—would have been to move the scaffolding and the action downstage.

Erin McArthur, as Katherine, would also have benefited from having her big number “Watch What Happens” moved to the forefront. McArthur’s strength lies in her acting and the little moments of natural reactions that she has throughout the song. Bringing her closer to the audience would have really helped to capitalize on the little nuances in her performance. There were some definite issues with the sound system that also could have been helped by bringing the solos and small scenes closer to the audience. Between the size of the stage and the sound issues, you couldn’t even really hear Jack during “I Never Planned on You,” as all focus was pulled by the Bowery Beauties who were further downstage.

Luckily, most the scenes in Newsies are not small scenes, and, as soon as the rest of the cast joined Bookout and McArthur on stage everything came to life. Bookout quickly became a confident and competent leader when surrounded by the rest of the newsboys. The most important part of any production of Newsies has to be those big production numbers. Not surprisingly, the direction and choreography employed by Bambi Johnson in those moments is top-notch. The energetic and synchronized skill of the entire cast is true magic. The newspaper dance sequence in “Seize the Day” was truly legendary, as, even while working with a difficult prop, no one seemed to miss a beat. Likewise, “King of New York” was a stunning display of tap technique. The dance didn’t stop with the large dance numbers, as Johnson cleverly used dance as a mode to change sets and fill the brief moments in between scenes as well. The action kept going and keeping everything alive.

The ensemble of Newsies at Street Lamp Productions. Credit: Street Lamp Productions Facebook Page

Helping make that possible was a truly strong ensemble that operated together like a well-oiled machine. That ensemble also had no shortage of standout performances from some of the featured Newsies. Matthew Peterson was a warm and likable Race. Sammi Flickinger (Specs) showed off impressive ballet and tap technique at the forefront of every number. Ryan Conner (Henry) was always alive with his reactions and bright smile. Stephanie Peterson (JoJo) brought this loveable, innocent energy to her character and dazzled with her athleticism as a dancer. Connor Reagan (Buttons) and Delany Flickinger (Mush) entertained with well-delivered one-liners. Any time that you glanced at Meg Smith (Newsie), she was in the moment and living the character. There was never a time that any one of the ensemble members seemed distracted or unprepared. Each one was focused in the moment, and you could feel the energy and chemistry that all of them brought as a team.  The whole concept in Newsies is the whole is more important that the individual and we are at our best when we work together, and this production nailed that.

Another example of taking a small featured part and really making it shine was Patricia Egner as Hannah. She really created an authentic character and brought great humor and energy to her scenes.

Still, two performances managed to really stand out among the others bringing something more to the entire production. The first was Austin Barnes as Davey. In addition to his beautiful tenor vocals, Barnes provided the audience with a master class in acting performance. A difficult skill is to show how a character goes through a radical transform. In some hands, the transformation is too subtle. In others, it is too sudden or too vast. The core of Barnes’ Davey never changes. He is clearly playing the same character from the beginning to the end, and yet Davey at the end is a grown, changed man from Davey at the beginning. From subtle things that he does with his body language and his vocal patterns to larger choices that he makes in line delivery and overt reactions, Barnes shows Davey’s slow and gradual progression into someone more confident and more compassionate. His performance was truly technique at its finest.

The ensemble of Newsies at Street Lamp Productions. Credit: Street Lamp Productions Facebook Page

The heart and soul of this production, fittingly as he is the real heart and soul behind Jack, was Josh Willig’s flawless portrayal of Crutchie. To start with, Willig showed unbelievable body control in the way that he carried his leg so still and at such an odd angle that is truly looked crippled. It was impossible to catch him letting down his guard about the leg. While you would think that would require all of his focus, he was in no way distracted from a performance that seemed completely genuine. He embodied the utter sweetness of Crutchie and truly gripped hearts with his vocally gorgeous rendition of “Letter from the Refuge.” Willig was honestly just delightful to watch.

Several of the weaknesses in this production were beyond control (being in a rented space), like the before mentioned sound system and the lack of real theatrical lights. However, the one misstep may have been in the character choices for the “adult” characters in the production, specifically Joseph Pulitzer (Ted Cregger) and Medda Larkin (Jennifer McDonald). Both Cregger and McDonald have big personalities and big voices, but the choice was made to play these characters in the vein of over-the-top humor that didn’t quite resonate with the more subtle and realistic character choices made by the rest of the cast. It may have been intentional to further set the adults apart from our heroes, but it didn’t quite land.

Minor flaws aside, this production is worth seeing and will definitely stand out even in a sea of Newsies productions. The choreography alone is enough to enthrall, and, once you add the chemistry and comradery of the cast that brings it to life, audience members won’t be able to help but to smile and to cheer. Layer on top of the that the heart and the spirit of the story of the underdog being heard shared with sincerity and passion, and you are likely to leave ready to come back and see it again.

This is what I thought of Street Lamp Productions production of Newsies… what did you think? Please feel free to leave a comment!

Newsies will play through December 9 at Street Lamp Productions at the Rising Sun High School theatre, 100 Tiger Dr, North East, MD 21901. For tickets, call 410-658-5088, email streetlamparts@gmail.com, or purchase the online.

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Review: Oklahoma! at Artistic Synergy of Baltimore

By Jason Crawford Samios-Uy

Running Time: Approx. 2 hours and 30 minutes with one 15-minute intermission

If you dream of a place where the wind comes sweepin’ down the plain and the wavin’ wheat can sure smell sweet when the wind comes right behind the rain, well… you can traverse to the great state of Oklahoma, or you needn’t go any further than Artistic Synergy of Baltimore to experience their latest offering, Oklahoma! by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, Directed by H. Ray Lawson, with Music Direction by Jeff Baker and Choreography by Suzanne Zacker. This well-known classic is reincarnated to give us a glimpse into a simpler time and happier endings.

The Cast of Oklahoma! Credit: Jason Crawford Samios-Uy

Briefly, Oklahoma! takes place in a territory (not yet a state) not long after the turn of the century when there was a spirited rivalry between cowboys and farmers. Curly, a cowboy, and Laurey, a farm girl are quite in love and the story mainly revolves around these two characters. Laurey is pursued by the sullen, dark farm hand, Jud Fry and threatens her budding romance with Curly. Throw in a spunky Aunt Eller, a whippersnapper of a cowboy, Will Parker, and a curious and spirited young woman, Ado Annie, who likes when men talk “purdy” to her, and you have the makings of a good, old-fashioned, feet stamping musical.

Music Direction by Jeff Baker is superb as this strong ensemble sings through this soaring Rodgers and Hammerstein score with ease. The use of canned music takes away from the energy of the piece, but that’s not to say it’s not energized and upbeat as the cast gives a good showing of this familiar music.

Austin Barnes and Suzy Zacker. Credit: Jason Crawford Samios-Uy

Choreographer Suzanne Zacker seems to know her cast well and has created interesting and engaging choreography that is performed well by the ensemble. It’s worth mentioning that Zacker is a highlight in this piece, taking on the role of Dream Laurey, during the “Dream Ballet” number. Her grace and elegant movement during this number is impeccable and is certainly a praiseworthy performance that keeps you enthralled and entertained.

Ray Lawson takes the reigns of this production and he should be applauded for his Direction, presenting this piece with a balance of the familiar and freshness. It’s always challenging to produce a tried and true story but Lawson wisely sticks with the traditional staging and seems to have a good comprehension of this material. The pacing is on point and the two and a half hour run time is no more or no less than what is needed to present this piece and still be entertaining for the audience. The ending of the show is a little lackluster, ending on a whimper rather than a bang, but I’m chalking that up to using recorded music, and I’m sure the cast will improve this ending with each performance. Overall, his vision is clear and it is a well thought-out, well-rehearsed production.

Austin Barnes as Curly and Josh Schoff as Jud Fry. Credit: Jason Crawford Samios-Uy

Moving on to the performance aspect of this production, Josh Schoff  takes on the complex and meaty role Jud Fry but, unfortunately, is a little weak in presentation. He certainly does not bomb in this role and he seems to have a good grasp of the character but also seems to be just going through the motions. His eyes dart all over the place and he rarely makes eye contact with his cast mates which loses that connection he must have to make his character work. This may seem like a knit-picky flaw but eye contact and that connection is essential for this role. Vocally, he’s a little shaky but emotes adequate emotion needed in songs such as “Poor Jud is Daid” and “Lonely Room” which redeems his performance a bit. With that being said, he looks near perfect for the role and is comfortable onstage and with a little more effort, could take this character to the hilt.

Donna Zubrowski as Aunt Eller. Credit: Jason Crawford Samios-Uy

Tackling the role of the feisty and spunky Aunt Eller is Donna Zubrowski and she is perfectly cast in this role. Zubrowski brings a certain authenticity to the part and her choices are befitting of such an endearing character. She has a great chemistry with the ensemble and is comfortable in the role making for a delightful performance. To go along with the more comedic characters, Lou Otero gives a humorous take on the role of Ali Hackim, the traveling salesman who finds himself in the wrong place at the wrong time and in the site hairs of a couple of young women of the territory. Otero has a good comprehension of his character, even if his accent is a little wonky, and he has good comedic timing.

Joe Weinhoffer as Will Parker and Kristin Miller as Ado Annie. Credit: Jason Crawford Samios-Uy

The young, optimistic couple Ado Annie and Will Paker are portrayed by Kristin Miller and Joe Weinhoffer, respectively, and both play these roles splendidly with an absolute believable performance and great chemistry. Miller embodies the giddy, immature, but yearning Ado Annie and, gives a terrific vocal performances as in her featured (and well-known) number “I Cain’t Say No.” Weinhoffer is brilliant as the lovelorn Will Parker and effectively and poignantly portrays the love his character has for Ado Annie. Vocally, he gives a commendable performance, especially in his featured number “Kansas City” where he also gets to show off his movement skills along with the rest of the male ensemble.

Mea Holloway as Laurey and Austin Barnes as Curly. Credit: Jason Crawford Samios-Uy

Leading this ensemble are Austin Barnes, as the loveable and upstanding Curly, and Mea Holloway, as Laurey, the simple, independent farm girl. These two actors definitely know their characters and have a firm grasp on the material making for a strong leading duo. Barnes has a booming, smooth voice and is a powerhouse, making the audience take notice from the get with his rendition of “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’.” He fully embodies this character and gives a  jovial flair to Curly, as it should be. He has as great presence on stage, giving a strong performance. Holloway is suited nicely for her role but seems a bit subdued and stiff at times It seems she lights up when she has lines and interaction but falls flat in between those instances and the character is not consistent in that aspect, drawing away from her obvious skill and talent. Her voice is absolutely appropriate and beautiful for this score and she gives a stellar vocal performance, shining in her featured numbers such as “Many a New Day,” “People Will Say We’re in Love,” and “Out of My Dreams.” Overall, the two work well with each other and, though a little forced at times, the chemistry is there and makes for a good showing.

Final thought…Oklahoma! at Artistic Synergy of Baltimore is a well put-together production that does this classic, familiar piece justice. The pacing is good (for a show that could easily seem to go on forever), and the ensemble is strong, overall, and seem to enjoy working with each and off of each other. The traditional staging still holds its own in our modern age and the tunes are still delightful and will have you tapping your toes or drawn in to their poignancy. They just don’t write ‘em like this anymore! It’s definitely a fluffy, feel-good piece of theatre that works well for community theatres like Artistic Synergy of Baltimore and it’s a wise choice to produce the classics to remember where our modern shows came from and to introduce them to a new, younger audience. This production of Oklahoma! is definitely one you want to check out.

This is what I thought of Artistic Synergy of Baltimore’s production of Oklahoma!… What did you think? Please feel free to leave a comment!

Oklahoma! will play through March 18 at Artistic Synergy of Baltimore, Prince of Peace Lutheran Church, 8212 Philadelphia Road, Baltimore, MD. For tickets, purchase them at the door or online.

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