Harrisburg Christian School ‘Seizes the Day’ with Bold, Energetic, Production of ‘Newsies’

Review: ‘Newsies’ in High School Musical Week #4

Harrisburg Christian School Seizes the Day with Bold, Energetic, Production of Newsies

Caleb Steindel, News Editor/Staff Writer

INTRO

Since the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic, live theatre has suffered greatly. Shows closed mid-run, casts and crews lost jobs, and musical junkies resigned themselves to Disney+ recordings and YouTube bootlegs. Now, though, live theatre is almost in full swing once again, the Central Pennsylvania scene is alive and well.

Each year prior to 2020, the Hershey Theatre hosts the annual Apollo Awards, a Tony’s-stye awards show for high school productions in the area. With the Apollo Awards returning in May for the first time since 2019, I’ll be reviewing many of the Central PA high school musicals that have registered to be evaluated. I’ll also be adding my own predictions.

Hershey Theatre Apollo Awards Facebook page

Hershey Theatre Apollo Awards website

 

REVIEW #4: HARRISBURG CHRISTIAN SCHOOL

We’re a month into the 2022 high school musical season and the constant joyful faces of audiences and casts have not yet failed to thoroughly warm my heart. Few things incite more happiness than watching student actors do what they love while friends, family, and strangers alike enjoy the fruits of their labor. It’s also thrilling to see the diversity of schools participating in this year’s Apollo Awards. Harrisburg Christian School stands out as not only a faith-based school but also as one that incorporates middle schoolers and junior high students in their productions. This year, they tackled an absolute whopper of a show – Disney’s Newsies. When the rights for this show became available in 2019, it became an immediately popular selection amongst both high school theatre programs and community theatres. Encore! Home School Productions broke down that gate with their 2019 production of the Alan Menken show, which garnered six nominations and two wins. Now, in 2022, the hype has died down a bit, and Harrisburg Christian stands as the sole Apollo Awards competitor to stage this taxing yet rewarding show.

When schools choose to perform Newsies, they are inherently making a confident statement about the abilities of their student actors. The musical requires vocal stamina, athletic ability, crisp songs and dances, and a plethora of tenors. There is hardly a moment to catch your breath. This fan-favorite focuses on the historic newsboy strike of 1899, when William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer decided to increase the wholesale price of newspapers, meaning that the Newsies (those who hawked the papers on the streets) had to pay more money to acquire them. Most were already orphaned and living in squalor, and to make matters worse, the journalism moguls refused to buy back the papers that the Newsies didn’t sell. The rag-tag group of children formed a makeshift union and refused to sell newspapers until the industry titans relented. The show is historical fiction, meaning that the overarching story is true, albeit with a few liberties taken and changes made. Newsies details the power of teamwork and why defying tyranny is important. It shows that even those who seem to be the smallest and least important among us can change the course of history. 

Harrisburg Christian’s theater building is not lavish – a stage connected to a gym and folding chairs make up their auditorium – but what they lack in seating comfort they make up for in the magnitude of their show. Newsies has to be fun for the actors if the audience is to be entertained, and it is entirely evident that each cast member on the Harrisburg Christian stage was having the time of their life. The ensemble stayed in character and engaged with each other constantly, the harmonies soared effortlessly through the rafters, and the leads impressed with their vocal range. But, while the performance was certainly funny at appropriate times, it didn’t reach its maximum comedic potential, due primarily to the fact that the actors struggled with enunciation and projection – specifically at the end of clever quips or funny lines. Nevertheless, the HCS version of Newsies is powerful, lively, spirited, and emotional, and it came across that way because the cast had fun.

Despite the overall success of any show, a great production can sink rapidly with poor chemistry between leads. Newsies has no such problem with Jack and Katherine, portrayed by the effortlessly chill Tony Moreno and the sprightly and enthusiastic Kayleigh Jarkowsky, respectively. Jack Kelly is one of the most difficult roles in all of musical theatre, particularly because of the demanding vocals and nuanced character. Moreno’s performance is not without flaws, and he admittedly lacks some of the nuances the role of Jack requires. He relies a bit too heavily on being a relaxed newsboy and misses some of the fierce leadership qualities that Jack should have, but he’s a believable New York newsie with charm and surprisingly adept vocal chops. “Santa Fe” is a beautiful performance from start to finish. While Moreno’s voice is excellent, it’s not nearly as polished as Jarkowsky’s, HCS’s practically perfect Katherine Plummer. Her first appearance is slightly flat, but she continues to improve as the show progresses, climaxing with a captivating rendition of “Watch What Happens.” Jarkowsky strikes an excellent balance between a dedicated journalist and a lovestruck young woman, and she effortlessly guides the viewer through the complex, dynamic arc of her character. She has impeccable breath control and a magical voice. She’s polished and talented beyond her years.

The supporting cast around Moreno and Jarkowsky clearly have some strengths and weaknesses. The beloved brotherly duo of Davey and Les Jacobs is, sadly, one of the show’s weaker links. That’s not to say there aren’t strong elements to their performances. Zach Roush is a great fit for the character – he’s cautious at first, but feisty when he needs to be, and like the rest of the cast, his vocals are exceptional – especially in “Seize the Day” and “Watch What Happens (Reprise).” But, his line delivery is flat and stagnant at times, and his attitude sometimes comes across as one-dimensional. In addition, Lucas DeLong as Les sadly does not have the usual spark and spunk that the role requires. While he plays a believable little brother and has a nice voice, the plucky courage is not always there.

*As is often the case, several of the lead male characters were portrayed by girls. Crutchie, Jack’s hobbled best friend and the most tragic character of the show, is played by Lexi Reen, and she delivers a heartwarming and emotional performance – especially in “Letter From the Refuge,” the heartbreaker of Newsies. Race, the primary ensemble newsie is also played a girl, Addison Reed. Her continual Brooklyn accent is perhaps the best of the entire cast, and her lively acting stands out among an already energetic cast. Medda Larkin, Jack Kelly’s vaudeville performer friend played by Rebecca Haas, doesn’t quite have the stage presence that her character needs, but she is still a captivating performer with a powerful voice. Finally, Sebastian Willard takes the role of newspaper tycoon, Joseph Pulitzer, to a whole new level. Willard goes beyond a pretentious journalist and turns Pulitzer into a truly evil, conniving aristocrat, bent on achieving his goals. He’s devious and unfazed in every scene, he plays off his fellow actors impeccably, and he effortlessly navigates the nuances of “The Bottom Line,” Pulitzer’s somewhat difficult solo. Willard’s stage presence is unrivaled. 

Moreover, as I have previously mentioned, it is the ensemble that truly provides the backbone to the success of Harrisburg Christian School’s Newsies. The cast consists of more girls than guys, which provides them with some flexibility when it comes to the high harmonies, and their blend is gorgeous. The accents are on point, and there isn’t a moment where the ensemble relaxes their characters. The choreography is nice, and while it isn’t always perfectly executed, the dancing is never messy. A handful of incredibly talented featured dancers give numbers like “Seize the Day” just enough pizazz to take it to the next level. In particular, Valen Shrum-Groff stands out above the rest, and he shines as both Finch and Spot Conlon. His dexterity and exemplary athleticism are truly one of a kind. The only disappointing dance element was that “King of New York,” the second act’s opening number, was not a tap number – something that every Newsies fan undoubtedly found disappointing. 

The rest of the show’s artistic elements brought the performance together in a tasteful way. Harrisburg Christian combines digital elements with the trademark rooftop set pieces in a clever way to give the full visual effect of New York City in 1899. The screen in the background effortlessly switches between shots of a Manhattan cityscape and also functions as a display for the newspaper headlines. The stage crew seamlessly transitions the well-designed, believable set pieces between each scene, from Pulitzer’s office to Medda’s theatre. Newsies doesn’t leave a ton of room for costume creativity, but this show definitely pushed the envelope a bit. While each of the leads started with their signature looks, a few pieces, like Davey’s, got substituted for different costumes in the second act. Every outfit, right down to the smallest member of the ensemble, was colorful enough to catch the eye and ragged enough to have been worn by orphaned newsies. The makeup was phenomenal, too, specifically in “King of New York,” when almost every actor has a black eye skillfully applied to their faces following an intense skirmish.

Newsies is not an easy show to stage. Every member of the cast, crew and creative team must be fully present and prepared to give 110%. Each actor must have the proper balance between vocal, athletic, and acting abilities. Harrisburg Christian School’s performance is far from perfect, but a dedicated ensemble, strong leads, and beautiful, energetic voices make it stand out among the rest of the Apollo-registered productions. Expect this year’s only performance of Newsies to get a few nods when the award nominations are released. 

 

APOLLO NOMINATION PREDICTIONS

Outstanding Musical

Outstanding Dance Number: Seize the Day

Outstanding Lead Actress in a Musical: Kayleigh Jarkowsky as Katherine Plummer

Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Musical: Sebastian Willard as Joseph Pulitzer

Outstanding Featured Performer in a Musical: Addison Reed as Race

Honorable Mention for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Musical: Tony Moreno as Jack Kelly

Honorable Mention for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Musical: Rebecca Haas as Medda Larkin