As Washington, D.C.’s Arena Theater at the Mead Center for American Theater prepares for its 70th Anniversary in 2020, the flagship American theater proves it’s as relevant as ever. Located near The Wharf in quickly evolving southwest DC, the iconic theater remains a pioneer of regional theater. Best known for their nearly two dozen productions that went on to see successful Broadway runs, such as Dear Evan Hansen and Next to Normal, Arena Theater is now taking on a new challenge with their rendition of Newsies
As is typical for the Arena Stage at the Mead Center for the American Theater and typical for Molly Smith, its run of Newsies presents the well-known musical in a new light.
In remarks at the end of the opening night celebration, Director Molly Smith drew parallels between the realities faced by the children who led the turn of the century 20th-century crusade for rights and the current generation of children and teens who are driving today’s fights on gun control and climate change. With today’s youth-led struggles shining a new light on the relevance of the story in Newsies, the modern-day classic takes on a restored appreciation.
The multi-ethnic, multi-gendered cast, including self-proclaimed ‘Cali girl’ Tro Shaw playing the role of Tommy Boy and Scabs, gave the 27-year-old musical a fresh breath while keeping it historically accurate to its turn of the 20th century New York inspiration. With an impressive line-up of Helen Hayes Award winners, Arena Stage’s new production of Newsies is a showcase of DC’s finest talent. Nova Payton, a daughter of a gospel singer, pulled from her roots to wow the audience as she played Medda with a convincing sass that honored the character’s real-life inspiration, Aida Overton Walker. Theater veterans Edward Gero (Joseph Pulitzer) and Jamie Smithson (Nunzio/Guard/Policeman/Teddy Roosevelt) helped ensure that the other older, temperate adult characters in the musical weren’t overshadowed by the younger, energetic Newsies.
If you need a refresher on the historical influences for the characters within the show, Arena Stage’s lobby has multiple touchscreen informational kiosks. The themed interface was a great way to dive into the 1899 world of Newsies ahead of walking into the fully themed theater, where you’ll have to push your way through clothing lines filled with the day’s laundry to find your way to your seat.
Before you take your seat, make sure to appreciate all of the exciting offerings within the lobby. A video kiosk near the entrance staircase allows theatergoers to record their thoughts, via prompts, and congratulations to Arena Stage in honor of their 70th Anniversary. Pre-show is also a perfect time to take advantage of the ‘Pre-Order for Intermission’ counter. The 15-minute intermission had long lines at the concessions counter, so this service is one that is highly recommended.
Famed choreographer Parker Esse and the cast honored the high energy dance numbers while the theater-in-the-round with a stage lift of Fichandler Stage gave Newsies a uniquely Arena Stage feel presenting it in a format that many have likely not seen it in before. The exceptional theater also means there isn’t a bad seat in the house, and the multiple scenes with actors moving about the aisles help ensure the action is never too far away. Ken MacDonald’s unembellished scenic design kept the focus on the actors but gave each scene just enough details to pull the audience in.
Ethan Van Slyke perfectly presented the timid yet bold Davey Jacobs while ten-year-old Josiah Smothers elicited reactions of ‘Aww’ multiple times from the audience as he put all of his childhood charm into Les.
While it’s impossible to say exactly why, possibly thanks to the intimate theater-in-the-round or to the parallels to realities being faced today, the audience for this Opening Night showing was lively, regularly joining in with the clapping on stage and giving energetic applause at the end of each scene, and often during them.
Tickets are on sale now. An additional six performances have now been added to the calendar with Newsies remaining at the Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater now through December 29.
Production photos courtesy Arena Stage, Photographer Margot Schulman.
The Disney Blog was invited to cover Newsies at the Arena Stage and was provided complimentary tickets for this review.