“NEWSIES,” through Dec. 20, Pioneer Theatre Company, 300 S. 1400 East (801-581-6961 or pioneertheatre.org); running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes (one intermission)
SALT LAKE CITY — In her director’s notes in the program, Karen Azenberg, Pioneer Theatre Company’s artistic director and director/choreography behind the playhouse’s recently opened “Newsies,” encourages audiences to pay special attention to one aspect of the show: the dancers.
“They’re hard to miss because they’re extraordinary: they fly and float and turn and glide; they defy gravity and physics; they make my heart stop from time to time,” she writes. “Some of (the dancers) might become stars, but all of them will make audience members stare in awe at their skill.”
And the show delivered on that promise of a cast of dancers with undeniable talent — an appropriate characteristic for such a dance-heavy musical theater piece that won the 2012 Tony Award for best choreography.
“Newsies” is the stage adaptation of a 1992 live-action Disney film portraying a fictionalized account of New York City’s 1899 newsboy strike. It follows a newsie named Jack Kelly as he sticks up for himself and his friends by declaring a strike when the newspaper moguls of the time band together to raise the price of papers.
But fans of the film who are unfamiliar with the musical will find tweaks in the story that add additional context: In addition to being the face of the strike, Jack is an artist who keeps his talent as more of a hobby than a potential future; and the part of the lone journalist who sees a compelling news story in the strike is changed from being a man (played by Bill Pullman in the film) to a budding female writer hoping to make her way off the paper’s society pages and into reporting on hard news.
A show like “Newsies” can be challenging to find the right cast as it requires skilled performers who also look young, but Azenberg showed exceptional ability in casting every part in the show, from the leads to the ensemble members.
Jonathan Shew led the cast as Jack Kelly, and he was able to strike a balance between the character’s too-cool-for-school attitude and his kind heart. His vocal performance was top-notch — his harmonies with Stephen Michael Langton’s Davey in “Seize the Day” were particularly good — and his acting gave an authentic depth to the character — especially during the second performance of “Santa Fe” before intermission. The song follows a scene of ruckus as the newsies fight the newspaper distributors and one of Jack’s closest friends is taken into police custody. Instead of “Santa Fe” being just a chance to sing a beautiful song, Shew used the scene to bring a genuinness to his character as he recognizes the gravity of the situation.
Nadia Vynn as Katherine tenaciously played the part of the budding journalist trying to make headway as a female in a predominantly male profession. Facing writer’s block as she sang "Watch What Happens," Vynn showed a character infused with personality as her facial expressions and body language mixed nervousness for wanting to get her first big story right — both for her sake and the sake of the newsies — with flashes of confidence, sass and humor.
Each ensemble member showed total mastery of not only dance but also singing and acting, and the group numbers were among the highlights, especially “King of New York” at the beginning of Act II. The gusto with which the cast members performed the song showed their genuine delight with the choreography, which was both clever and captivating. The number was playful, relying on props — including mops, tables, chairs, spoons, glasses and jugs — as the performers at times danced in unison in a large group filling the stage and at other times in smaller, more specialized groups.
While there were tastes of strong dancing from the beginning of the show, the initial scenes feel restrained when compared to the rest of the show as it wasn’t until “Seize the Day” toward the end of Act I when the ensemble was really able to show their skill. It is no question that the impressive choreography and talent of the dancers is what makes PTC’s “Newsies” so great, but it also leaves you wishing there were more of it.
Content advisory: The film version of “Newsies” was rated PG, but audiences should note the stage version contains instances of mild swearing and mild sensuality.