KEARNEY — Director Robin McKercher walks a fine line between historical facts and entertainment.
“I want to pay homage to the real historical event that took place in 1899, which was the Newsboys’ Strike,” he said. “None of this is actually based in the real truth of what the strike was about, but it’s an incredible event. It deals with all the progressive issues that happened in that era, the ‘TR Era,’ the Teddy Roosevelt Era.”
The strike highlighted the issue of child labor.
“The Newsboys’ Strike really codified what was going on in America at that time,” McKercher said. “And they won, although they compromised, but still they could have been crushed. Our newsboys even talk about that. And it does happen. The cops come in and bash some heads.”
Crane River Theater presents “Newsies,” a musical about the famous strike, opening on July 25 and continuing through Aug. 4 at the Miriam Drake Theatre on the University of Nebraska at Kearney campus. Tickets for the show are $25-$35.
Most audience members know the story from the Disney film of the same name, released in 1992 and starring Christian Bale, Ann-Margaret and Robert Duvall. The stage musical strives to keep the same elements of the film.
“The music is by one of my favorites, Alan Menken, who does a lot of the Disney musicals,” McKercher said. “Harvey Fierstein wrote the book. It’s a fabulous book with amazing music. This is a killer-good musical and I’m pretty picky about musicals.”
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McKercher directs the theater department at Doane College in Crete. He sees the strength of the show as exploring social issues with a love interest and more than a touch of comedy.
“It hits all the buttons,” he said. “The pathos and the payoff is immense.”
He sums up the show with the thought that we all should treat each other with dignity.
“That’s a message that needs to be heard today,” McKercher said.
Caitlin Witty plays Katherine Plumber, based on the real life reporter, Nellie Bly.
“There weren’t a lot of women’s rights back then,” she said. “It was very odd for a woman to be writing and to have a career. Women were seen as property and then they got married off and then they were stuck in the house. She uses her name and is a really strong character.”
Witty just finished her studies in St. Louis before accepting the role of Katherine Plumber in “Newsies.” She hopes to stay true to the character, true to the times, but yet inject contemporary sensibilities into her work.
“I’m trying to stay in the world of the show but I’m also thinking about human rights, along with the problems we’re dealing with right now in society,” she said. “A lot of it is in the physicality of it — not crossing my legs, trying not to sit on my hip too much, a lot of things like that.”
The leader of the newsboys is Jack Kelly, played by Matthew Riordan.
“He’s sort of the leader for the Newsies,” Riordan said. “I like to think of Jack as the fatherly figure for all the Newsies. They all sort of look to him. If any of them have any questions or concerns, they go to Jack and say, ‘What do we do?’”
Riordan views his character as a leader and a dreamer.
“He’s passionate,” Riordan said. “This is based off of Kid Blink, who had a patch on his eye — but I won’t have an eye patch.”
The story works on various levels for the performers and the directors. Riordan sees the message of the musical as what can happen when common people unite for a cause.
“When people truly come together, you can’t be stopped,” he said.
Riordan previously played the part of Jack Kelly.
“It’s fun coming back to it,” the actor said. “This process of working with everybody in this company has made the show brand new again. I’ve been so lucky to learn so much from Robin. He’s given me so much insight that I would have never thought of. In terms of my historical research for Jack, I studied the Broadway show a lot, I studied the film and I studied the Newsboys’ Strike and what that meant for them. It was more harsh for the boys than what you’ll see in this because it’s a Disney musical.”
Riordan understands the difficult situation of the newsboys.
“It sheds a light on the strike,” he said of the show. “It was a dark time for them. It wasn’t fun. They were worried about what they were going to eat the next day, let alone what they were drinking or where they were sleeping. It wasn’t something as playful as what the show makes it be. But Robin has done a great job of not losing that integrity.”