Now in its 35th year as a Southern California staple, the Claremont-based Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater has found a way to continually impress by diligently putting together musicals that are of the highest quality. Its latest production, the intensely heartfelt and high-flying marvel that is “Newsies” – now playing through November 23rd – is so much of a crowd-pleaser that audience members will likely feel a sudden surge of endorphins rush through them by show’s end, inspired by an energizing call-to-action premise that is based on the real-life events surrounding the 1899 newsboys’ strike in New York City.
The notion of staging a protest or strike is as topical as it has perhaps ever been in today’s scene of politics, and so most can identify with and applaud the urgency that compels it. But when there is a greater power imbalance between two forces, the harder it is for the subjugated side to rise up and risk life and livelihood. Nevertheless, with all odds against them, this is what the ragtag, adolescent-aged newsies, led by Jack Kelly, do in response to tycoon Joseph Pulitzer raising the buy-to-sell rate of “The World” newspaper from 50 cents to 60 cents per bundle of 100. The power of the press to turn the tide for the common man and woman is an integral part of this story, too, and the aspiring investigative journalist with a nom de plume of Katherine Plumber, who is also mysteriously linked to the conflict, turns up as a key figure in the eventual outcome.
Ever since the Christian Bale-starring 1992 Disney film became a cult hit, the musical – which is written by Harvey Fierstein with music and lyrics by Alan Menken and Jack Feldman – has remained ever-popular since being unleashed on Broadway in 2012. There is something to be said about rooting for the underdog, which director and choreographer Janet Renslow gets across engagingly with her performers at the Candlelight Pavilion, many of whom are women doubling as newsboys. The acting performances are fiercely passionate in the strong intentions they convey – either for or against the strikers – but the choreography is, simply put, the main attraction. The athleticism is world-class, featuring a collection of gravity-defying maneuvers and superlatively synchronized combinations that look so easy but are in fact a product of rigorous practice over several years. Audience members will sit with their jaws dropped as they try to process how swiftly and accurately the cast pulls off pirouettes, somersaults, mid-air splits, backflips, high kicks, tap dancing, and the grandest of grand jetés in a manner that is meticulously structured but also rife with emotional impact – a credit to Renslow as well as fight coordinator John Paul Batista.
In addition, the wood-gridded, multipart set on loan from RCC Fine & Performing Arts frames the turn-of-the-century struggle very well, as do Aspen Rogers’ focused lighting design and the costumes provided by The Theatre Company (including the newsboys’ modest but stylish caps/vests, and the power players’ sophisticated suits). An important acknowledgement also goes to Kevin Gasio, whose musical direction captures the breadth of the fist-pumping anthems (and the animated voices that comprise them), which underlie the strikers’ fervid desire to break free from their dependency on Pulitzer.
Candlelight Pavilion newcomer Jimmy Saiz is the rough-around-the-edges but golden-hearted Jack Kelly, who is looked to by the other destitute newsboys as their muse. Kelly is passionate, ambitious, resourceful, and selfless despite an apparent “criminal” past, and Saiz is excellent at portraying the many nuances that make up the mostly confident and upright character. Kelly, who is also quite the sketch artist, shows himself to be more than just a paper boy, dreaming as he does of new beginnings in “Santa Fe.” Saiz’s singing communicates an impassioned, palpable expectation in this regard, just as it galvanizingly does during rallying cries of “The World Will Know,” “Seize the Day,” and “King of New York.”
As ruggedly tough as Jack is, and must be, his newspaper cohorts are more indigent and sympathetic, making it easier for the audience to commiserate with their cause. For example, the bum-legged Crutchie (depicted with a sweet affability by KC Archer), as well as Davey and his younger brother Les (played in a perseverant fashion by James Everts and Levi Gomes, respectively) represent much of the newsies’ emotional resilience and fortitude.
If there ever was a perfect counterpart to Jack, it’s Katherine Plumber, a woman who is firmly grounded in her own individualism and personal power. Her attraction to Jack, and the opportunity to produce a groundswell of change as a reporter, empowers her to fight on the front lines with written words as opposed to fists of fury. Elizabeth Curtin is marvelous as the vibrant and valiant Katherine, and especially shines when she excitedly belts “Watch What Happens,” all the while typing feverishly on her typewriter, as each word manifests from an epiphanic stream of consciousness. Morever, Curtin – along with Saiz – is the living embodiment of hope during “Something to Believe In.” It is a lovely duet and one that counterbalances much of the musical’s intensity.
The main antagonist is of course Joseph Pulitzer, a publishing king who prioritizes business interests over human considerations. John George Campbell strongly plays Pulitzer with an imperious and sometimes vindictive rage as one who, backed by comparatively herculean finances, feels that it’s a foregone conclusion he’ll get his way. “The Bottom Line,” for instance, is a terrific song for both the character and for Campbell who makes the most of it with vocalizations that emote a staunch, matter-of-fact denial of the surprising push made by the newsies.
Furthermore, Pulitzer’s cronies are all quite effective in backing up their leader’s bark. Matt Shuster’s Warden Snyder (in charge of the juvenile detention center, the Refuge), Harrison Schultz’s Bunsen, and Jenna Stocks’ Hannah are formidable heels that are invaluable in establishing the classic archetypal conflict.
Of the assemblage of supporting characters, the two with the most striking impact are advocates of the newsies: Medda Larkin, Jack’s unlikely friend and featured vaudeville performer, whose theatre offers a safe haven; and Governor Roosevelt, based on the future 26th president himself, who becomes an offsetting force to Pulitzer’s despotism. Rashonda Johnson makes for a delightfully charismatic Medda, bursting onto the scene as she does with her electrifying performance of “That’s Rich.” Although her time on stage is short, Johnson leaves an impression that is indelible. The same can be said for Candlelight Pavilion favorite Greg Nicholas who flexes his skillful performing muscles yet again as the mustachioed and benevolent governmental official. Nicholas, who has an unmistakably personable aura about him, is perfect for the part.
A final shout-out goes out to the always dependable Jim Skousen who juggles a plethora of roles without missing a beat. These include Wiesel, who acts as the main distributor of papers to the newsies; Mr. Jacobi, the bearded owner of a Jewish deli who is kind to the boys; the mayor, who is subservient to Pulitzer; and Medda’s stage manager.
The bottom line is that, instead of resting on the laurels of their longstanding reputation, the individuals behind the Candlelight Pavilion have admirably striven to make each production a little bit better than the last. “Newsies,” which features the largest cast to ever grace the Candlelight stage, epitomizes this forward-thinking approach as it is not only a thrilling musical that touches on actual history, but boasts Olympic-level feats of agility that give the production an incredible liveliness that can only be experienced and fully appreciated in person.
For more information about “Newsies” at the Candlelight Pavilion, please visit: