5-Star Theatricals, a regional theatre company, puts on only a handful of musicals a year at the Bank of America Performing Arts Center in Thousand Oaks, Calif., but a great deal of effort goes into each one to make it a can’t-miss experience for the residents of Ventura and Los Angeles County. 5 Star’s penultimate production of 2022, Disney’s Newsies The Musical, is no exception as it boasts an elite and dance-proficient cast – at the forefront of which is seasoned Broadway belle Jonalyn Saxer — whose collective dedication to delivering passionate performances comes through in spades. Based on the newsboys’ strike of 1899, and written by Harvey Fierstein, with music by Alan Menken and lyrics by Jack Feldman, this version of the show, directed and choreographed by the skilled Richard J. Hinds, will certainly galvanize audience members to appreciatively pump their fists in the air through Sunday, July 24th.
The premise of the musical, which is also detailed (albeit slightly differently) in the 1992 film, spotlights a cap-wearing, orphaned, and ragtag group of hard-working newsboys, led by the defiant Jack Kelly, who decide to strike against The World newspaper and its publisher, the profit-seeking Joseph Pulitzer. The publishing magnate increases the price of a bundle of 100 newspapers from 50 to 60 cents, which stacks the odds against the Newsies who are already struggling to make ends meet selling the “papes” they would purchase at the circulation gate. This quagmire gets the attention of New York Sun reporter, with the nom de plume of Katherine Plumber, who covers the events to the dissatisfaction of Pulitzer.
Attendees are properly immersed in the goings-on of this struggle thanks to a wonderful scenic design by Front Row Theatrical, which incorporates the trademark moveable steel girders in the foreground of a unique backdrop, comprised of adjoined front pages, which glow in various colors. These visuals are further augmented by Jared A. Sayeg’s epic lighting design and Noelle Raffy-Porter’s picture-perfect costumes appropriate to the turn-of-the-century era. From an audio standpoint, Wilkie Ferguson leads the charge as musical director/conductor, boosted by Jonathan A. Burke’s sound design, which undeniably contributes to the exuberance the audience feels as they root for the Newsies to overcome Pulitzer’s cruel stratagem.
Wes Williams portrays the iconic Jack Kelly, imbuing him with much grit and a no-nonsense determination to right the wrongs not only perpetrated by Pulitzer — played with superb antagonistic flair by Gregory North — but against Warden Snyder, who is inhabited with a suitable dastardliness by John David Wallis. Snyder runs The Refuge, a wretchedly run jail for the underaged, which in addition to the unsympathetic police force, Jack and the Newsies have tried to elude.
Among the most vulnerable of the Newsies is the disabled Crutchie, depicted with a poignant evocativeness by Nolan Almeida, who earns the commiseration of the audience, particularly when his character finds himself in The Refuge writing a letter to his best friend Jack. Medda Larkin, a vaudeville singer and theatre owner, represented with a lively likability by Amanda Bailey, provides an actual refuge for the Newsies from the inaptly named detention facility. Other Newsies crucial to the story are Davey (Frankie Zabilka) and his younger brother Les (Zachary Michael Thompson), who stand out for still being from intact families. Zabilka especially shines as the fervent voice of reason in Act II, and Thompson nearly steals the show with a precociously charming performance that earns well-timed laughs and applause for his ability to keep up with his older castmates during choreographed sequences.
While this is clearly a production about a newsboy rebellion, the best overall performance comes from the woman, Jonalyn Saxer, who brings the intrepid reporter Katherine Plumber to life. Saxer, who is an Oak Park High alum, went on to earn Broadway success, starring in several productions, before touring the country as Karen in Mean Girls, and now returning as Plumber in what has become a homecoming of sorts. Saxer not only plays off Williams’ Kelly flawlessly, both in rejecting his advances then warming up to him, but delivers a sensational rendition of “Watch What Happens,” singing out her character’s internal monologue as she feverishly click-clacks away at her typewriter. The intonation, articulation, facial expressions, and spectrum of emotions expressed throughout the number’s relatively short time span is a marvelous sight to witness, ending on an impressive high note, just as her co-star Williams does in “Santa Fe” at the end of Act I. Amazingly, Saxer ups the ante even more, tap-dancing away in heels and a long dress, across the stage and over tables, while sporting a delightfully fitting I-can’t-believe-I’m-doing-this countenance.
Of course, it’s not Newsies without the athletic spectacle it promises, and 5 Star’s production does not disappoint in this department. The ensemble, reinforced by Ryan Perry Marks’s leadership on the floor, emotes with a justified anger in “The World Will Know” and with an infectious zeal in “Seize the Day” and “Once and for All.” They swing their arms in concert with one another, stomping their feet, doing high leg splits in the air, sliding, pirouetting with a steadfast purpose, and at times even dropping down for push-ups (!) before lunging back up in a millisecond. Brandon Halvorsen, Tyler Luff, Michael Swain-Smith, and Michalis Schinas deserve extra acclaim for fully realizing their characters’ anguished fight for injustice, as do Gerry Kenneth and 13-year-old Luke Pryor for backflipping spectacularly on multiple occasions to oohs and ahhs.
Overall, 5-Star Theatricals’ production of Newsies, which is put over the top by Jonalyn Saxer’s award-worthy performance, again exceeds all expectations, thriving as a stage work that would not be out of place anywhere in the nation. Not to mention, the energizing power-to-the-people spirit of Newsies is just what audiences need as many continue to feel aggrieved by disheartening political outcomes and as the specter of another round of the pandemic looms. Amid these uncertain times, Newsies’ enthusiasm offers the ideal escape for a few precious hours.
For more information about 5-Star Theatricals’ Newsies, and to purchase tickets, visit: 5startheatricals.com