BG high students breaking in ‘Newsies’ musical for school productions

Front row from left, Joseph Kalmar, Hudson Pendleton, and Ethan Brown rehearse a production number for "Newsies," which will be staged at the BG Performing Arts Center, February 1-4

By DAVID DUPONT

BG Independent News

The young thespians and their adult mentors at Bowling Green High School are ready to set the pace for their peers across the country by piloting the Broadway musical, “Newsies.”

Their mission, shared by about a half dozen other schools, is to stage the popular show. Director Jo Beth Gonzalez and the rest of the staff will then share their insights into what it takes to produce the musical with a high school cast.

That could result in the production company, Musical Theater International, tweaking certain aspects that prove too difficult for young actors and crews.

Their input will also be shared in production notes that will be included when other high schools rent the script.

The Bowling Green High School theater is no stranger to this process. They did their first pilot production with “Mary Poppins” in 2014, followed by “Peter and the Starcatcher.”

Kenzie Matney paints a “printing press” built for “Newsies.”

Those projects gave choreographer Bob Marzola an idea. He loved the musical “Newsies.” He became a fan of the original 1992 film starring Christian Bale when he saw it on television. Hat film was a flop at the time of its release, but became a cult classic when it was added to the Nickelodeon rotation and was released on video. Later as a fourth grade teacher at Conneaut Elementary, Marzola used the film and its story about a strike by young newspaper peddlers to talk about labor and the Industrial Revolution.

“I got my students hooked on the movie,” he said.

Disney turned the movie into a Broadway musical where it was a Tony Award-winning hit.

Marzola wondered when Disney would release the performance rights for high schools and if Bowling Green could pilot it.

He asked Gonzalez, and she asked MTI, the umbrella organization for Disney musicals. Not yet, she was told. He asked again. She asked again. Not yet.

Then last spring, just as the musical theater team at the high school was starting to discuss what musical to stage in spring 2018, Gonzalez was offered the script.

They jumped at the chance. MTI, though, said they wanted it staged in February “because they want to get licensing deals out in the spring,” Gonzalez said.

The show will run in the Performing Arts Center, Feb. 1-3 at 7 p.m. and Feb. 4 at 3 p.m. Tickets are $12 and $10 for students and seniors, and available through Jan. 24 from showtix4u.com, and afterward at the box office.

This is a business, and piloting a show is an important part of it.

“It is a responsibility,” Gonzalez said. “It’s on us to write detailed thoughtful reflections.”

That feedback is provided by the director, set designer, choreographer, and musical directors. They are the ones working with the young cast and crew, and have a clear sense of what difficulties arose. They may make specific suggestions about vocal ranges, staging, set design, rehearsal strategies, choreography, orchestration, and teaching the historical context of the work.

That information is essential for educators who are working with young amateurs in local venues to stage a show that played the big houses on Broadway with stars and professional casts and crews.

For the publishers, Gonzalez said, “the bottomline is they want people to pay the royalties” to stage the show. Gonzalez said. High school productions are the biggest revenue generators for musical theater publishing companies.

“I’m not sure every school wants this responsibility,” the director said. “I think it’s inspiring” to take on the challenge “and then infusing our kids with the spirit of being challenged.”

Gonzalez said the BG production had to “reconceptualize our concept of newsies. Most are played by girls.”

Erik Schempf paints a scenic element for “Newsies.”

Back in 1899, some of the newsies were girls. So for the BG show, some girls are playing girl newsies, others are cast as boy newsies. All the assistants to publisher Joseph Pulitzer, the musical’s nemesis, have been cast as women. That’s a function of who turns out for auditions.

Marzola said one of the qualities that first attracted him to the musical was that it had such a strong male dancing cast. He works with his female dancers to remind them if they are portraying males then they shouldn’t dance “pretty.”

That sometimes clashes with what they learn in dance lessons, but it also makes them better as performers. They learn, he said, that “I have to take on a character and I have to move my body in a different way.”

“The dances are huge and long and complicated and exciting,” said Gonzalez, “so we’re really pushing our kids to meet that challenge.”

And, she said, “the majority of the company is young. … For a lot of them, this is their first show.”

The dancing also puts demands on the stage design.

“Every surface we build, we have to build with the assumption that somebody’s going to dance on it,” said Ryan Albrecht, the technical director of the Performing Arts Center where the show will be staged. That means a heightened concern for “safety and stability.”

He’s working with a crew of 20 students and a few parents to create their version of turn of the 20th century New York. “The newsies thought of these buildings as their playground,” he said.

On Broadway, the set consisted of large rotating fire escapes. That was impractical, given he works largely with wood – it’s cheap and he can’t teach students to weld.

Unlike a musical such as last year’s “Shrek,” sets are not available to rent. So Albrecht and his crew have to build everything, scrounging what they can from elements left from other shows.

“Theater is the great art of lying,” he said. “I lie with wood, and technical ability.”

The biggest feat was coming up with a printing press used by the striking newsies to produce their own newspaper.

Parent Tom Pendleton designed and built the press. On stage the audience will see blank newsprint go in and at the other end printed sheets will come out. That set piece, Albrecht said, will then be available to rent for future productions of the show.

Gonzalez said she was also pleased that they were able to locate a vintage typewriter that actually works, and sounds the part.

“Such details are important,” she said. “You have to have something that looks realistic. … This really happened. These were real people. The fun part of it is giving the kids the historical background that they need.”

Albrecht said having students construct the sets is an important part of the process. “My philosophy is that this is the kids’ show, and they should do as much as they can.”

Bowling Green doesn’t have a hierarchy of cast and crew. Students who were singing and dancing in “Shrek” are now working building sets while students who were working backstage for that show are now in the cast.

Once the show starts, Albrecht steps back and lets students run the production.

All that gives them a more well-rounded theater experience, Albrecht said.

The students take on the challenges with enthusiasm.

That was evident on Thursday as they gathered after school. The set is still taking shape, but there’s enough done that the cast has just started rehearsing on the stage. First there are vocal and dance rehearsals in the nearby studio. There’s a buzz in the air.

The students are enthusiastic about the musical, Marzola said. “They very much want to do anything we want from them.”

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