Tuesday, December 10, 2019

Dancing makes 'Newsies' fun at Hillbarn Theatre

The newsies declare a strike to protest higher costs. (Photo by Mark Kitaoka)

Based on an actual situation in New York City in 1899, “Newsies,” as staged by Hillbarn Theatre, is a vehicle for almost nonstop, terrific dancing.

That’s the strongest, most enjoyable aspect of this musical directed by Doug Greer and choreographed by Zoe Swenson-Graham. Most of the singing is good, too, as is the acting.

Featuring music by Alan Menken and lyrics by Jack Feldman, the book by Harvey Fierstein focuses on a strike by the boys and young men who sold the New York World newspaper on the street.

It came after they were told they had to pay 60 cents per 100 rather than 50 cents. This price increase meant less money for these poverty-stricken newsies, as they were called.

Hence, they went on strike. They were met with resistance by the authorities, but eventually they prevailed.

In this production, however, the plot line isn’t always easy to discern because the New York accents are sometimes hard to understand and because Grant Huberty’s sound design over-amplifies the actors and the recorded music.

Jack Kelly (Kamren Mahaney) meets Katherine Plumber (Melissa Momboisse). (Photo by Tracy Martin)
The central character and instigator of the strike is Jack Kelly (Kamren Mahaney), who winds up defying Joseph Pulitzer (Shaun Leslie Thomas), publisher of the New York World, and falling in love with Katherine Plumber (Melissa Momboisse), an aspiring reporter for the New York Sun.

Medda Larkin (Phaedra Tillery) is Jack's friend. (Photo by Tracy Martin)
He’s also a talented artist who has done scenic backdrops for a Bowery theater owned by his friend, Medda Larkin (Phaedra Tillery). She delights the audience with her saucy “That’s Rich.”

Other principals in this strong cast are Stephen Kanaski as Crutchie, the disabled newsie who’s Jack’s friend; James Jones as Davey, the well-spoken newcomer who becomes a newsie to help his parents after his injured father was fired; and Noah Itzkovitz as Les, Davey’s spunky younger brother.

Several actors in this 30-member cast play several characters. Most of the newsies are the highly athletic dancers.

Menken’s songs, several of which are reprised, are mostly lively. “Watch What Happens,” sung by Katherine and later reprised by her, Jack, Davey and Les, is highly reminiscent of Stephen Sondheim’s style with its fast-paced lyrics.

Costumes by Pam Lampkin, along with hair and makeup by Y. Sharon Peng, help to define class differences. The functional set is by Paulino Deleal. Jad Bernardo is the music director.

On the other hand, Matt Eisenmann’s lighting design sometimes projects lights directly at the audience.

Athletic dancing is a highlight of the show. (Photo by Tracy Martin)
But thanks to the outstanding dancing and excellent cast, “Newsies” is highly enjoyable.

Running about two and a half hours with one intermission, it will continue through Dec. 22 at Hillbarn Theatre, 1285 E. Hillsdale Blvd., Foster City.

For tickets and information, call (650) 349-6411 or visit www.hillbarntheatre.org.