Theatre Baton Rouge stages one of its biggest productions yet with ‘Disney’s Newsies’

This year’s summer musical at Theatre Baton Rouge is a big one. With a cast of 43 actors, plus 45 crew members and 70 costumes, Disney’s Newsies promises a glimpse into turn-of-the-century New York through large-scale dance numbers and full-bodied show tunes.

The story follows a ragtag group of teenage newsboys teaming up against newspaper publishing titans, and Theatre Baton Rouge will stage it with 21 shows spanning three weeks this month.

The company hasn’t done a musical of this size since Music Man in 2015.

Newsies stands out from other Disney productions, especially since it’s based on the true story of the Newsboy Strike of 1899, when newspaper owners Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst raised distribution costs for newsboys selling their papers. Capturing the authentic spirit of this historic moment has been a challenge for both the actors and the production team, says Jenny Ballard, Theatre Baton Rouge’s managing artistic director.

“I think it’s fun to figure out how to capture the magic of Disney but to tell this true story of real people with real needs and goals and drives,” she says. “It’s going to challenge people to look at their circumstances and see if they can make a difference in their world in some kind of small way.”

From left to right: Grayson Barraco plays Davey Jacobs; Joey Roth plays Les Jacobs; Austin Ventura plays the lead role of Jack Kelly

To bring a show with so many big dance numbers to life, Theatre Baton Rouge’s volunteer actors practice about 18 hours a week for 10 weeks. Most of its summer musicals only require a seven-week rehearsal schedule, but this cast started earlier to nail down the extensive choreography.

“I think when you’re working with volunteer actors, you’re working with a group of people who are very passionate about the fact that they want to be here doing this,” Ballard says. “Audiences will see a group of people pouring their guts and souls out onto the stage every night.”

Choreographers Dylon Hoffpauir and Natalie Baily Smith say their aim was to ensure all the cast members—whether they’re already strong dancers or not—are challenging themselves on stage, tackling some tough choreography.

“My favorite part is seeing the cast grow. In a lot of musicals not everyone gets to dance as much, but everyone’s always dancing in Newsies,” Hoffpauir says.

As opening day approaches, the production team is looking forward to seeing the full vision unfold on the stage, especially during that first full-costume rehearsal.

Plus, the show includes Theatre Baton Rouge’s live orchestra, a unique feature as it’s one of the only theater companies in town to still use a live orchestra.

“Once you add in our 11-piece orchestra, we have over 50 actors and musicians working together to bring you the sounds that you’ll hear,” says music director Jamie Leonard-Brubaker. “It’s a huge machine to be controlling with just the wave of a hand, and it’s incredibly thrilling for me to be in charge of it.”

The team is also hoping the show inspires the audience to take action in their own community. This tale of young people banding together and standing up against the establishment is relevant to current times, Ballard says.

“I think we need to be encouraging our next generation to be thinking for themselves and thinking about the differences they can make,” she says. “This is a good show to gently do that.”

Managing artistic director Jenny Ballard and assistant director Brandon Guillory

Big numbers

Here are some of the production team’s favorite moments from the show

The stage directions for the “Seize the Day” number read: “Jack leads the Newsies in a triumphant dance.”

It’s the moment toward the end of the first act when the newsboys decide to join together to strike. Assistant director Brandon Guillory loves it, calling it one of the more thrilling moments of the play.

Managing artistic director Jenny Ballard suggests it’s the moments leading up to “Seize the Day” that really bring out the significance of the song and allow it to have the impact it does on the rest of the show. The number starts off slow following a rallying speech by main character Jack Kelly and builds into an anthem.

Even in the parts of the show that don’t involve choreographed dancing, those small scenes pack an emotional punch, says choreographer Dylon Hoffpauir.

“Those moments are so different from the rest of the show,” he says. “I think the contrast is going to pair very nicely with the big loud dance numbers.”

One of Ballard’s favorites is “King of New York.” It’s a number at the beginning of the second act, when the newsboys celebrate the media attention on their strike.

Ballard thinks it’s a highlight of the show musically, but also because it features her favorite dance medium: tap.

This article was originally published in the June 2019 issue of 225 Magazine.