As rehearsals for this year’s Summerstock production of “Newsies” reach the final days, the talent and hard work of St. Mary’s youth shines through.
“Newsies” is a tall order for young performers; it began as a 1992 cult-classic Disney film chronicling the New York Newsboys Strike at the turn of the 20th century.
After two decades, it made a bombastic return as a Tony Award-winning Broadway musical from 2012 to 2014. Everything from Alan Menken’s score to Christopher Gattelli’s choreography received critical acclaim.
However, the local cast of 70 performers ranging in age from 10 to 21 do not seem to mind the challenge at Summerstock, the St. Mary's recreation and parks department's annual summer youth theater project performed at Great Mills High School. In fact, many seem to relish the opportunity to work with such a lofty production while also flexing their creative muscles.
Brandon Maher provides a great example — as a 21-year-old upcoming senior at Salisbury University, he is using his theater studies to the fullest extent for “Newsies.” Maher plays the newspaper magnate Joseph Pulitzer, but he is also working as an assistant director, a fight choreographer and an accent trainer, helping the cast to sound like authentic New-Yorkers.
Summerstock "is definitely more intense than high school productions, in terms of how rigorous it is,” Maher said.
Director Wade Thompson, who has become a feature of Summerstock in his own right with nine directorships under his belt, calls attention to everyone’s dedication to the performance. Thompson said, “Since this counts for community service hours for many of the kids involved, I end up signing off on a lot of the paperwork. By the end of the summer, we’ll see a figure around 15,000 total hours of community service for all of the kids.”
Summerstock has drawn in a diverse array of performers from many different backgrounds over the last few decades. Gary Reed, recreation and parks coordinator, said that “some of the kids are homeschooled, and from charter school as well.” Thompson also emphasized that many of the people who come for auditions “aren’t theater kids at their schools. Some really talented people come out of nowhere for the Summerstock shows, because they might be too shy to do it at school, or maybe they just don’t want to perform in front of their teachers.”
No matter where the performers come from, the fact is that many of them stay with the Summerstock program, opting to return year after year. In addition to Maher, two more of the leading roles in “Newsies” this season are filled by Summerstock veterans: Brad Oosterink and Meaghan Travis, both 19 and from Leonardtown.
Oosterink plays Jack Kelly, a strong-willed young man who organizes his fellow newsies to stand up to Pulitzer and rising newspaper costs. Travis plays Katherine Plumber, an aspiring young reporter who, after meeting Jack, decides to cover the newsies in the hopes that their story will be her serious break into journalism.
The energy of the show is palpable even during the rehearsal, and it is clear that the actors are giving a great deal to this performance both mentally and physically.
The big cast has adapted well to the numerous fast-paced dance numbers in “Newsies,” especially considering the fact that these numbers are accompanied by over a dozen original pieces in the musical score as well as quick-witted dialogue.
The cast members help one another with creative challenges; some have previous training in dance, and they can be seen helping the less experienced during rehearsals.
All of the dancing is done under the careful supervision of the choreographer Richard Lepper, who dispenses valuable advice to the young performers from the front of the stage.
In a press release written by Lauryn Paradis (who is also performing as one of the newsies named Specs), Lepper shows confidence in the cast. He said the show offers "a great time to showcase each one of our cast member's talents.”
That talent is also on display in the orchestra under musical director Sara Nelson. Nelson’s confidence in the performers also comes through in the release, where she said that everyone who comes to see “Newsies” will have the opportunity to “realize how great [a show] it is.”
Nelson and the handful of musicians under her direction are another promising aspect of the show, especially since they are working with a relatively experimental setup for the second year. The musicians will perform the show live from a separate room where microphones will pick up their sound and pipe it onto the main stage, and Nelson will give cues to them based on what is happening on stage. She can see the stage from a camera set up at the back of Great Mills High’s auditorium.
This kind of attention to detail shows that a great deal of thought has been put into performance quality. When asked why they chose such a setup for the band as opposed to something more conventional, Thompson said, “it just sounds better, so for us it was worth it to find a way to make it work.”
In addition to thanking the communities in Southern Maryland for continuing to support the arts, Thompson gave another reason to look forward to a high-quality theater production in the coming weeks: “In April of 1992, I saw the movie 'Newsies' with several [theater majors] and friends. I came out of the movie [saying] that I wanted to direct it onstage. It’s taken 27 years and I’m finally doing it.”
“Newsies” premieres at Great Mills High School on Friday, July 19, at 7 p.m. It will continue through July 28, with shows at 7 p.m. each Friday, at 1 p.m. and again at 7 p.m. each Saturday, and at 3 p.m. each Sunday. For more information or to buy tickets ahead of time, visit www.stmarysmd.com/recreate/summerstock.