When Disney’s “Newsies: The Broadway Musical” opens at the Mesa Arts Center on Jan. 7, it will bring many dreams to life – from dream roles and dream choreography to the director’s decades-long dream to produce the show with a youth cast.
“I fell in love with ‘Newsies’ when I was kid and saw the movie in the theater,” said Emma England, artistic director of Limelight Performing Arts, the Gilbert-based youth theater company producing the musical. “I have wanted to stage this production for the last 20 years. It’s truly a dream that is finally being fulfilled.”
The show features a cast of nearly 50 performers ages 10-22 hailing from across the Valley. Based on the 1992 motion picture and the real-life Newsboy Strike of 1899, the musical tells the story of Jack Kelly, a rebellious newsboy who dreams of a life as an artist away from New York City. When titans of publishing raise distribution prices at the newsboys’ expense, Jack rallies a ragtag gang of teenage newsies to strike against the unfair conditions and fight for what’s right.
Mesa’s Tre Moore, 17, plays the leading role. “Jack has been a dream role of mine since I first listened to the ‘Newsies’ cast album when I was 11,” he said. “He is charismatic and confident, but also sensitive and ambitious with a big heart. What truly makes this show so meaningful for me is that I, an African-American actor, have been given the opportunity to play Jack, a role that is historically played by White or non-Black actors. This is huge! I am honored to join the ranks of Jack Kelly actors and I hope to inspire and open the eyes of audiences in January.”
Kayla King, 18, of Chandler, plays the role of witty and bold Katherine Plumber, a newspaper reporter who breaks the story of the strike and helps the ragamuffin newsies become the Kings of New York.
The dancing is a highlight of the production.
“It is extraordinary when you have incredibly talented teens with such passion for a show combined with the heart-stopping choreography by Emma England,” said Christian Graca, “Newsies” director.
England and her choreography team, Marie South of Chandler and Reayanna Erving of Gilbert, spent many evenings and weekends working together to find the right balance of energy, athleticism and technique that “Newsies” is known for.
Indeed, this choreography has been years in the making.
“I’m not exaggerating when I say I’ve been thinking about and visualizing and working on this choreography for almost a decade,” said England, who has won dozens of ariZoni and National Youth Arts Awards for directing and choreography. “With the dream team of Reayanna and Marie, this is probably the best choreo we have ever done.”
This attention to detail is a signature of Limelight’s – and it’s present in every aspect of “Newsies.”
Said England, “There is only one blackout in this entire show, and yet the story is constantly moving from one setting or storyline to the next. We had to be very intentional with every single moment on stage to capture the movement of the story across New York City and create an engaging experience for audiences.”
“‘Newsies’ comes after an over two-year break from theater for me,” said Moore. “To be able to come back to performing, and at this caliber, is extremely exhilarating and a little daunting. I have been performing for over 10 years, but Jack Kelly has to be one of the most challenging roles I’ve stepped into.”
“The creative energy and support from the production staff and parent volunteers are a magical combination that will breathe life into this huge production and create the ‘do not miss’ musical of the year,” added Graca, who has directed productions across the Valley for the last 10 years. “Limelight Performing Arts is a terrific place for young thespians to learn, grow and reach for excellence in youth theater, and I’m so blessed to be so warmly welcomed into their family this past year.”
Beyond the ins and outs of putting together a top-rate production, the cast has learned other important lessons throughout the six-week rehearsal process – lessons they believe are especially pertinent today.
“It’s really interesting how ‘Newsies’ seems more relevant now to the U.S. workforce than it has in a long time,” said 14-year-old McKenna Henry of Mesa, who plays Tommy Boy. “This show has taught me that normal people can make a big difference if they stand united, ‘Carrying the Banner’ for the average worker. Unionization, general strikes and holding people accountable are major themes in this show – and these things are happening in this country right now.”
“‘Newsies’ is an amazing story of kids banding together to stop a big corporation from taking money out of the pockets of people seen as small or unimportant,” agreed Vincent Farley, 16, of Mesa, who plays the role of Finch. “I think this is a story that the world needs to see right now.”
Added Taylor, “The whole show in general is just an inspirational story filled with so many emotions.”
Of course, rehearsing 50 performers amid a global pandemic is no small undertaking. According to England, the directing team made a plan b, c, d and e in anticipation of COVID-19-related challenges. In addition to protocols like masking, handwashing and regular testing, the directors held many rehearsals outdoors and via Zoom. They also cast and rehearsed a large group of understudies and swings for every role and scene.
“Our understudies now have understudies,” said England. “Our performers know their own tracks and several other dances, scenes and roles, as well. We are doing our best to prioritize health and safety while building in contingencies. It’s also an opportunity for kids in those understudy roles to get more advanced training.”
Inspired by a true story, “Newsies” features a Tony Award-winning score by Alan Menken and Jack Feldman and a book by Tony Award winner Harvey Fierstein. Featuring the now classic songs “Carrying the Banner,” “Seize the Day,” and “Santa Fe,” “Newsies” is a David and Goliath story packed with high-energy performances and timeless messages of resilience and courage.
This year marks the 30th anniversary of the original film and the 10th anniversary of the Broadway production.
Limelight’s production of “Newsies” will run from Jan. 7-16 at the Mesa Arts Center. Tickets are $15-$18 and can be purchased at MesaArtsCenter.com, keyword “newsies.” Group discounts are available.