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012419-mda-nws-newsies

The cast of "Newsies" at Circa '21 Dinner Playhouse offers a blissfully entertaining rags to riches tale.

“Stop the presses” takes on a new meaning in the electrifying, blissfully entertaining production of “Newsies: The Musical” at Circa '21 Dinner Playhouse.

The inspiring story of rags versus riches, David taking on Goliath, is dazzling and exhilarating from start to finish, in a beautiful, powerhouse performance directed by Jay Cranford, a Kansas State theater professor who brings the same dynamic leads with him from their July 2018 production in Kansas City.

Based on the real 1899 newsboys' strike in New York City, the musical, making its Quad-City debut, tells of young Jack Kelly (Noah Lindquist) and his ragtag team that makes a meager living selling papers on the streets. When the callous, greedy publisher, Joseph Pulitzer, raises the price the newsies have to pay for papers before they sell them, Kelly and his angry pals form a union and organize a strike.

Based on the 1992 Disney film, the deeply emotional stage show, which debuted on Broadway in 2012, has music by Alan Menken, lyrics by Jack Feldman, and a book by Harvey Fierstein, and carries strong resonance today for both the battered newspaper industry and society as a whole.

Since “Newsies” is an old-fashioned, feel-good musical, it adds some fictional details to the already tall, true-life tale. The co-leader of the underdogs and love interest to Jack is the equally spunky, courageous reporter Katherine Plumber (Kelly Urschel), who turns out to be Pulitzer's daughter and writes under a pen name for the rival New York Sun, at first doing reviews and society pages. (Pulitzer had a real daughter named Katherine, but she died of pneumonia in 1884.)

The satisfying way the story ends is at odds with history, but shows a true art of the deal, in which an egomaniacal New York tycoon agrees to a compromise by giving up something and getting something in return.

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Fresh from his winning turn as NYC billionaire Oliver Warbucks in Circa's “Annie,” John Payonk similarly employs his booming, operatic voice as Pulitzer, another larger-than-life character who in real life donated money to start the Columbia journalism school — which later founded the most prestigious prize in journalism in his name.

While Pulitzer's influence looms large, Payonk is only on stage in two numbers, dominating each time in the first and second acts, with “The Bottom Line.”

Lindquist as Jack and Urschel as Katherine (who both graduated from Kansas State last month) are outstanding. Given the demanding nature of the role, which requires Jack to be a top-notch actor, singer and dancer, Lindquist makes it look effortless, and his dreamy ruminations on Santa Fe at the top and close of the first act are highlights. The closer ends on a particularly high, thrilling note.

In addition to Urschel offering a energetic, sympathetic portrait of a wide-eyed feminist who's also frightened of attacking the powers that be, her many musical high notes include the exciting second-act opener, “King of New York,” and the wonderful romantic duet, “Something to Believe In.” Against a starlit sky, on the set's second level, their strong voices pierce the heavens.

The rest of the professional Circa cast bursts with similar talent, with many playing multiple roles. Tom Walljasper is the picture of grizzled cynicism as Wiesel; Antoinette Holman-Nebinger is regal and a force of nature as the colorful Medda (her “That's Rich” is an eye-popping standout, especially her pink, sparkly costume); and Darrington Clark and Trey Gordon steal the show as father-and-son newsies Davey and Les.

With a crack crew including music director Travis Smith (who's also in the cast) and costume designer Greg Hiatt, this is a musical not to miss. The boisterous, exuberant group dances — including a big tap number — alone are worth the price of admission. These are dedicated performers who certainly know how to seize the day.

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