CAC’s Student Summer Stock production returns with ‘Newsies’

When Dr. C. Austin Hill signed on to direct the Community Arts Center’s Student Summer Stock production of Disney’s “Newsies,” he was told by many that the talent pool of student actors in the area runs deep. But according to Hill, nothing prepared him for just how gifted the area’s young thespians actually are.

“Casting was very difficult, mainly because many of these actors could have played the leads, which let us be very selective,” Hill said. “Though we tried to be very inclusive and cast as many of the auditioners as possible, the selection of the leading roles was a tough series of deliberations and negotiations.

“I wouldn’t have it any other way,” he added.

Next week, these student actors will have their talents on full display for the entire community, when the CAC brings “Newsies” to its stage for 7:30 p.m. performances on July 26-27, and a 2 p.m. matinee on July 28.

Though the Community Arts Center has been hosting a student-oriented program for more than a decade, dating back to its collaborations with the Community Theatre League for Act Up productions, the Student Summer Stock show started just five years ago. That’s when the CAC partnered up with Lycoming College, who Hill currently works for as a visiting assistant professor of theatre, and the student-centric show took on new life.

The Student Summer Stock show, which has the stated mission to “offer an opportunity for students to create alongside working professional theater-makers,” opens its auditions every year to students in seventh through 12th grade. The students must be from Lycoming or one of the contiguous counties.

This year’s SSS production of “Newsies” features a cast of 44 actors, making it quite a bit larger than last year’s showing of “Man of La Mancha,” which included 25 students. With each of the students being required to rehearse five days a week (four hours per day) for well over a month, balancing the schedules of his actors has proved to be one of Hill’s biggest challenges with the show.

“These kids — and their parents — had to commit to working their summers around this project,” Hill said. “We’ve tried to accommodate wherever we could, but this is a monster sacrifice in terms of time and effort.

“I’ve often said that 50 percent of directing is managing logistics, and that has definitely been the case on this project,” he added.

The musical “Newsies” is based on the 1992 movie, which was inspired by the newsboys strike of 1899 in New York City. It features a Tony Award-winning score by Alan Menken (“Little Shop of Horrors,” “Sister Act”) and Jack Feldman, and a book by Tony Award winner Harvey Fierstein (“Kinky Boots”).

Hill said that using the show for this year’s SSS production was a “pretty natural choice” because of its broad appeal and engaging content for all ages. He also mentioned that the show brings an important social message to the table.

“The show is about what can happen when people — and young people in particular — work together towards a common goal,” he said. “It’s about unification, courageously taking a stand against injustice, shaking the fears that come from being very young; and it’s about the type of overcoming that can only happen when we work together.

“I can’t think of a better message to share with, and share by means of, this very young cast of actors,” added Hill.

Though some of the leading roles in the musical went to actors who have been a part of the SSS production in the past, Hill did not take that into account when casting. Instead, he focused on actors that fit his vision for the show.

Taking on lead roles are Quahme Powell as Jack; Hannah Rankey as Katherine; Levi Roush as Davey; Elijah McBride as Crutchie; Nevaeh Williams as Medda Larkin; and Zach Frey as Pulitzer.

But even though the show’s leads do a fantastic job, Hill mentioned that “Newsies” is an ensemble-driven production, and that he “couldn’t be more pleased” about the team of actors he has assembled.

In an exciting divergence from the original movie and Broadway production, the CAC’s version of “Newsies” features a cast that is full of girls, whereas the other versions do not. With Disney and Music Theatre International, who manage the rights of the show, realizing that a male-dominated production would be a hard sell for female-heavy theater groups, they opened the door for gender flexibility in the show.

“We took full advantage of that, with women comprising about 60 percent of our cast,” Hill said.

With so many women in a show written for male vocalists, Tim Latsha’s job as music director got a little more tricky, according to Hill.

“He’s had to make sure that everyone is singing in their proper healthy vocal range,” Hill said. “It’s really paid off, though — this cast sounds incredible.”

Hill described the music of “Newsies” as “high-energy, really catchy and fun,” also mentioning that the show includes a lot of dancing. He added that Allison Hill, the production’s choreographer, has done a “fantastic job” of using those dances to help tell the story — even when the lyrics are fast-paced and complicated.

Along with the aforementioned members of the production staff, Hill also said that Sarah Dubos, the show’s stage manager, and his design team have all been a “dream” to work with. He’s hopeful that next year he will once again be given the opportunity to bring the CAC’s Student Summer Stock Production to stage, calling the entire experience “a blast.”

“My hope against hope is that the Williamsport area rewards these kids for their work by coming to the show,” he said. “They deserve passionate support, and enthusiastic ovations from enormous crowds!”