Entertaining the community and empowering keiki come easy for Hawai‘i Children’s Theatre, which kicks off its kid-heavy production of Newsies this week.
In 1988, Hawai‘i Children’s Theatre founder Bobbee Downs embarked on a mission to share her love of the arts with keiki.
“I have a degree in theater education, and when I came to Kaua‘i, there was no children’s theater. It was like OK, let’s start one, and there were really great people who got behind it,” exclaims Downs, who adds that she’s now “way retired.”
However, her version of retirement entails spending a balmy Friday night tucked away in a small, windowless room sorting through countless boxes of wigs in the back of the theater’s production office. This is what the love of theater looks like for those bitten by the bug.
Downs is just one of many dedicated cast and crew members working late into the night as the nonprofit theater prepares for its fall production of Disney’s Tony Award-winning Broadway musical Newsies. The story is based on the real-life New York City newsboys’ strike of 1899. The show opens Friday, Nov. 9, at Kaua‘i War Memorial Convention Hall, and performances take place at 7 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, and 4 p.m. Sundays through Nov. 25.
The force behind the full-scale musical production is director/choreographer Rebecca Hanson, who was previously stage manager for the company’s production of Willy Wonka and keiki director for Summer Stars 2012. She also directed several other shows on Kaua‘i including The Lion King Jr., Little Shop of Horrors and Spamalot.
“The very first step is falling in love with the show itself,” says Hanson of the production process. “The movie Newsies has always been one of my favorites, and when I heard it was a musical I was waiting for my chance to work with the script and music.”
According to Hanson, there’s a lot happening behind the scenes that people don’t see. While actors are practicing their roles, the costumer is holding costume fittings and making alterations. The set creation team builds away, and the orchestra holds separate practices. In addition, each rehearsal is dedicated to learning dance, music, scene and character work.
“Then finally getting to a run through of the show, we really work out each beat of the music, each step of the choreography to really get it into our memory and to do it well,” Hanson adds. “These kids spent hours on hours perfecting their choreography and their harmonies in the music. Some rehearsals we get really tired but we push through as a group. Putting on a show is a large puzzle from beginning to end to make the whole thing fit together as one giant masterpiece for the audience.”
One of the best things about Newsies, though, is the fact that kids play the part of kids. Among a cast that numbers 47, 38 are keiki, including first-timer David Braman, 10, who will be playing Les.
“Once a kid becomes a theater kid, they’ll be here every year,” says Downs.
She cites the dedication of veteran performer Abby Winters, 9, who plays Spot Conlon in the production. Winters has been part of Hawai‘i Children’s Theatre since she was 5, but her love of the arts started at age 3 when she started dance classes.
“I really like all of the dancing and how pumped up it is,” she says. “It’s all so exciting, and the way it all comes together just makes one really beautiful dance.”
For Downs, she just wants the public to know that Hawai‘i Children’s Theatre strives to be a community-based program.
“We do an after-dark summer program, and the kids that are older that have graduated from the program and are in college come back. Parents sell tickets, and they all get involved and they get donations for our silent auction. They work backstage; they work everywhere in the program,” says Downs.
Newsies producer Debra Blachowiak is one of those dedicated parents: “I have been involved since 1997 when my daughter Juli was 5 and wanted to participate,” she says. “I have produced every fall show since then, and also some of our after-dark summer shows.”
Sitting amidst an array of costumes and wigs, Downs reflects on her three decades with the company. Over the years, the group has toured all over the world, representing the U.S. and Kaua‘i in Portugal, Scotland and more.
“(I have) no idea the hundreds and hundreds of hours that go into it. I’d actually forgotten that it’s been 30 years,” Downs says with a laugh.
Newsies tickets at the door — are $15 for adults and $12 for seniors/students. Children age 3 and younger are admitted for free. The community is also welcome to support a special benefit matinée performance Nov. 12 for Kaua‘i food banks. On that day, tickets are $6 when you bring in a donation of food or money. For performance schedules and ticket information, visit hawaiichildrenstheatre.org or call 246-8985.