The Observer Review

Newsies is a smash at the Engeman Theater

July 26, 2018
By David Ambro

For years people have been telling me to raise the price of The Observer from 75 cents to a dollar, and as I sat watching Newsies at the John W. Engeman Theater at Northport on press night Saturday, July 21, it made me think twice.

When Jack Kelly and Katherine Plumjber rallied the child labor of New York City to a strike that brought management to its knees though, I walked out knowing 75 cents it will be.

When I go to the John W. Engeman Theater to review a show, it is always with an eye toward finding the things I like and highlighting that. There is nothing I didn’t like about Newsies. It was terrific.

The Engeman Theater is running a streak of consecutive shows that have had to be extended due to popular demand. Well, this should be the fourth in a row. If you haven’t purchased a ticket yet, hurry to the box office because this is the Engeman at its best.

Dan Tracy as Jack Kelly, Whitney Winfield as Katherine Plumber, Nick Martinez, a veteran on the Engeman stage, as Crutchie, Allyson Kaye Daniel as Medda Larkin, Tom Lucca as Joseph Pulitzer, Mike Cefalo as Davey and young Zachary Podair as his 10-year-old brother Les bring a deep cast of wonderful singing talent to this Broadway classic. Add to that the acrobatic and athletic Newsies dancers and this is among the best shows the Engeman has ever staged.

Mr. Tracy as Jack Kelly and Ms. Winfield as Ms. Plumber are shining stars, while Ms. Daniel as Ms. Larkin in her one solo song “That’s Rich,” is a hit, and Mr. Martinez, as Crutchie is wonderful. And, when they all join voices with a chorus that numbers more than 25 people at times, this is an Engeman show that lives up to that more than decade long mantra of bringing Broadway to Main Street.

What is also tremendous about this show is that it delivers a spirited happy ending to a dramatization of a real-life event with a powerful social message – the strength and importance of unionized labor. Based on the Disney Film written by Bob Tzudliker and Noni White originally produced on Broadway by Disney Theatrical Productions, Newsies is based on the true story about the newsboy strike of July 20, 1899.

When newspaper publishers Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst raise the price newsies have to pay for the papers they sell – from 50 to 60 cents per 100 in the show – the newsboys organize and strike, led by Louis Ballatt, the inspiration for Jack Kelly, and David Simons, the inspiration for Davey. When Pulitzer and Hearst refuse to concede to the newsies’ demands, a rally is held by child workers at historic Irving Hall, a 130-year-old theater built in 1888 at 15th Street and Irving Place near Union Square in Manhattan. More than 2,000 young workers fill the theater and 3,000 more gather outside, which compels Pulitzer and Hearst to relent.

There were some special moments of this show for me, ones that added to the enchantment. After my daughter, Sophie, saw Newsies on Broadway with a few of her friends when they were kids, she would walk around singing the lyrics to “Seize the Day.” It does that to you: “Open the gate and seize the day. Don’t be afraid and don’t delay. Nothing can break us. No one can make us give our rights away. Arise and seize the day.”

So when the cast of the Engeman, led by Tracy, Cefalo and the Newsies chorus, broke into Seize the Day in Act I and again in the reprise in Act II, it sent a chill down my spine, flashbacks to Sophie at the kitchen table as a little kid belting it out. I loved that. So did the audience at the Engeman, who responded with uproarious applause.

“King of New York” featuring Cefalo, Podair, Winfield and the Newsies chorus and Martinez as Crutchie in “Letter from the Refuge” were also among my favorites, Broadway-quality performances on the Northport stage. In the Engeman production of In the Heights, Martinez was Sonny. He is an endearing character in Newsies, offering a voice of social commentary.

Mr. Lucca, who is an especially good Pulitzer when he is interacting with Jack Kelly, is also an Engeman veteran, having performed as Utterson in Jekyll & Hyde and John Hancock in 1776. Ms. Winfield makes her debut at the Engeman in Newsies but she is a veteran to the show, having performed Katherine last year at Tuacahn in Utah, where she also played Fiona in Shrek.

While his older brother Davey is key to the story, and Cefalo is a star of the show, Zachary Podair as 10-year-old Les is another endearing Newsies character, in one of the deepest and most abundant collections of talent ever assembled on the Engeman stage. This is Zach’s Engeman debut and it is the highlight of his acting resume, but a role that he performs on par with the talent of the stars around him.

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