Above: (Front row) Avery Mendillo (Staples ’18), Sam Mandelbaum (Staples ’19), Jamie Mann (Staples ’21) and Mia Kobylinski (Staples ’19, also dance captain) kick it into high gear in Staples Players Newsies. Photo by Kerry Long.
Staples High School is known for mounting shows that look more like Broadway productions than anything typically staged in a school auditorium. Caley Beretta, who works in Creative Development at Disney Theatrical Productions, just happens to be familiar with the prestigious Staples Players. She graduated from the Westport high school and served as assistant director and president during her time with Players. “When I heard my colleagues discussing potential high schools to pilot Newsies, I knew that Staples had to be one of them,” says Beretta. “Staples Players is an incredibly collaborative organization, where the students have an opportunity to be involved in a hands-on way in every element of production. They take pride in working together and have a deep love for their organization and the theatre they make. It is exactly that kind of energy, enthusiasm, and professionalism that makes Staples a perfect pilot school for Disney.”
Last spring the Players got the news that they’d been tapped to pilot the two-time Tony Award-winning show. And last weekend, the cast of 69 tapped right back with four rousing, unforgettable performances, creating a buzz that swept this town and spread as far as Newsies’ hometown of New York. Word is even some of the Broadway cast members—including, of course, Westport’s own Adam Kaplan—have heard about the headline-worthy pack of newsies up in Fairfield County.
One theater buff, who traveled from Rhode Island to see the show, raved: “Broadway quality. Incredible. Outstanding on every level.” He plans to return to see it again. Westporters with no direct ties to the show, no children* in it to gush over, are buying tickets to multiple shows, dragging along friends; going forward, they will only need to be dragged out of Players shows—not in. Even non-artsy boys who opt for soccer or video games over a musical any day are falling in love with the Players telling of the story of the newsboy strike of 1899. Perhaps most convincing of all, a diehard Miami Dolphins fan, given a pass from his wife to leave at intermission to catch the big game, could not pull himself away. He stood, dumbstruck, in the roaring standing ovation, like everyone else in the packed 980-seat theater.
So, how did this cast of high schoolers pull off a show that has captured so many hearts and promises to wow the folks over at Disney?
Kids Will Be Kids
Newsies is about a band of underdogs who become unlikely heroes when they stand up to New York newspaper giants William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer. The newsboys (and girls, in this cast) who made history with their strike at the turn of the last century were just kids. It’s no surprise that putting teens at the helm of this tale works. Fighting for what’s right, staying true to who you are, falling in love for the first time—these themes resonate with high school kids. As a result, this big-scale show is even bigger on heart.
Jackie Rhoads (SHS ’18), who shares the role of “Katherine” with Daisy Brackett (SHS ’19), comments: “I think the message of underdogs coming together and rising up is a very important one in today’s world. More than ever, people are feeling empowered to tell their stories and reach justice. I always believe in never giving up and that everyone has something to contribute.” This is the senior’s first lead role with Players, but Rhoads has been acting for as long as she can remember. Actually, longer. She appeared on the soap opera The Guiding Light as a baby!
Staples Players Director David Roth and his co-director (and wife) Kerry Long have a long track record of producing shows that garner big-time attention. The cast of A Chorus Line in 2013 performed alongside Broadway greats at Marvin Hamlisch’s benefit gala in New York. (Read more about that and the history of Staples Players here.
Add in the honor of being one of a few high schools chosen to pilot Newsies before it becomes more widely available to high schools, and this dynamic duo were sure to up the wow-factor even more.
Newsies is a male-heavy show—light on their feet but lots of ’em. High schools will have to find a way to incorporate more girls, and Roth has enjoyed trail blazing. “It’s exciting to be working with the script, with Disney’s approval, and be one of the first schools to incorporate female newsies,” says Roth. The Players cast includes 34 boys and 35 girls.
“Depending on how the other pilot high schools that have the rights to Newsies have cast the show, I may be the first female to play ‘Crutchie,’” says Sophia Sherman (SHS ’18). “This is so exciting, yet also a great challenge trying to maintain that same lovable energy Crutchie has in the original show while not having her appear as a romantic interest.” Sherman worked with Nick Rossi (SHS ’19) and Charlie Zuckerman (SHS ’18), who share the role of “Jack,” to “develop small rituals and habits between the characters to create a brother-sister dynamic.”
Key to the wow-factor goal are choreographers Rachel MacIsaac and Christopher Hudson Myers, Broadway veterans who moved out to this area a few years ago from New York when Mamma Mia! closed. Myers appeared in the show for three years and both were in the Broadway tour. The pair was ready to get out of the grind and start a family (yep, another couple on the creative team. Perhaps that’s the secret to Players’ success: no grouchy spouses waiting at home when rehearsals run past 9 p.m. during “Hell Week”).
Chris and Rachel soon had a great big brood at Staples. (Their own daughter conveniently made her entrance into the world just after Players The Music Man closed a year ago.) When asked how they managed to make a bunch of teens look like pros in one explosive dance number after another, MacIsaac says, “Well, first of all, there has been a lot of excitement surrounding this show and the kids really committed themselves to put in the extra work to make it look great. Many of them took extra dance workshops over the summer, signed up for dance class and put in extra rehearsal time—and it really shows. By them showing up to rehearsal each day eager and ready for whatever we could throw at them, it allowed us to push the dancing to a new level that we’re all really proud of.”
MacIsaac adds, “We tried very hard to keep the original essence of the show while keeping it within the kids’ wheelhouse of what they’re going to look great doing. There always tend to be moments people familiar with the show are going to expect (for instance the dancing on newspapers in this show), in which case we really try to pay homage and make it our own. Other inspirations for Newsies include a kind of militaristic moment as the newsies ‘prepare for battle’ in Seize the Day, making our Brooklyn kids into a bit of a stepping crew, and then of course taking tons of inspiration from the kids with the tricks and talents they brought to the table.” These tricks just happen to include tap dancing on tables, in addition to gravity-defying leaps and a dizzying display of pirouettes.
A Set to Rival Broadway’s
Reid Thompson (SHS ’97), an award-winning set designer, again brought his talents to the table—or in this case, to a stage transformed by looming scaffolding and newsprint into the bleak city and barren rooftops the ragtag newsies called home. It is every bit as impressive as the grand library he designed for The Music Man last year, with more emotional punch. You have to witness it, and all its elaborate elements, to understand.
“Newsies is by far one of the most complicated shows Staples Players has mounted,” says Stage Manager Michael Dodd (SHS ’18). “In this show, we have over fifty scenic elements, including 1,500 square feet of painted newspaper, 2,300 square feet of newspaper fabric, and over 1,500 newspaper bundles.” Dodd has been honored to work with Thompson, who also created the set for Players’ Sweeney Todd. “With each show he pushes us beyond our comfort level, forcing our technical crews to reach new heights. Anyone who walks into the Staples Theatre will be amazed.”
The music direction by Don Rickenback and orchestra, conducted by Adele Cutrali-Valovich and including nineteen student musicians, certainly add to the effect of ones heart growing in Grinch-like fashion as the soaring score reaches its final crescendo.
Circling back to the message of the newsboy strike, Christopher Hoile (SHS ’18), who plays “Davey,” comments, “It’s always important for people to work together for a goal, especially when they have the odds stacked against them.” A high school theater group tackling a challenging show like Newsies and hoping to impress the bigwigs at Disney? Seems about as realistic as a band of homeless orphans taking on the most powerful publishers in America.
Caley Beretta and some of her Disney colleagues came to Staples last weekend to see what these teens could do. Insert a suspenseful pause like the one before the day’s headlines are revealed to the eager newsies ready to sell “papes”…
“Everyone from Disney who saw the production was blown away,” raves Beretta. “By the sets, costumes, and lights, by the choreography, and by the leagues of talented students standing on that stage, belting out the show’s powerful anthems. It was a thrill to see that Newsies translates so well to the high school stage—and to see it brought to life by the talented Players cast and crew. It is clear that the future of musical theatre is alive and well in Westport, Connecticut!”
*Disclaimer: The writer of this article does have two children in the cast, Cameron (the BMS 6th grader who plays “Les”) and Jamie Mann (the freshman newsie who loves to spin). She swears her passion for the show is not blood related.
The Staples Players Production of Disney’s NEWSIES
Music by Alan Menken
Lyrics by Jack Feldman
Book by Harvey Fierstein
Based on the Disney film written by Bob Tzudiker and Noni White
Directors David Roth and Kerry Long
Music Director Don Rickenback
Choreographers Rachel MacIsaac & Christopher Hudson Myers
Set Designer Reid Thompson
Technical Director Peter DiFranco
Costume Designer Susan Kobylinski
Thursday, Friday, and Saturday Evenings: November 10, 11, 16, 17 & 18 at 7:30 pm
Saturday and Sunday Matinees: November 11, 12 & 18 at 3:00 pm
Staples High School Auditorium
70 North Avenue
Westport, CT 06880
$15 for adults, $10 for students, $10 for seniors (matinees only)
Tickets may be purchased online at StaplesPlayers.com or in the lobby 30 minutes prior to performances, subject to availability. Even sold-out shows will have some general admission seats released at the door.
Run time is approximately 2 hours 25 minutes, including one 10-minute intermission.