Hood River Valley High School theater teacher and director Rachel Harry does not like to stage easy musicals.
 
“I get really excited about the music and the dance and the story,” she said minutes before students took the stage for a dress rehearsal last week. “And the story on this one is really compelling. It’s relevant today — kids trying to change the status quo.”
 
Everything about “Newsies,” the HRVHS fall musical opening Oct. 25-26, is challenging, from the music to the number of performers.
 
“We have a young cast,” she noted, having lost many seniors last year to graduation. Many have never done a show before. But the kids have stepped up and come into their own, and she’s excited to see new students come into the school’s theater program.
 
That might explain why she has 36 students on the stage alone, six more actors than she usually casts.
 
“They were just really good,” she said. “It’s been fun to see how much they love dancing and working hard.”
 
The students have put in countless hours to perfect the music and dancing, with “Newsies” starting the day after 2018’s “Addams Family” closed.
 
“I could tell right away that she was passionate about this show and wanted every detail to be at the most professional caliber possible,” said Music Director Dan Kenealy, HRVHS band and choir teacher.
 
“She has poured her heart and soul into this musical, and it is always an honor to work with someone who has such profound passion for the arts and commitment to excellence.”
 
“We want it to amaze the community,” Harry said. “Some of the choreography is right off the Broadway stage. It’s advanced stuff. And they’re doing a beautiful job.”
 
Another challenge was bringing a modern Broadway musical to a small theater, an issue Harry didn’t have with older shows, such as her 2017 production of “Fiddler on the Roof.”
 
“Modern productions rely on state-of-the-art technology, with a lot of bells and whistles,” Harry said. “Staging these shows here requires a lot of creativity and plain old theater savvy to get the quick scene changes and maintain the fast pace that modern shows require. The student stagehands practice scene changes in special rehearsals without the actors, as well as rehearse with just a few actors who provide the dancing during the changeovers.”
 
While Harry loves the music and dance in “Newsies,” she also likes the concept of young people taking over the world: A group of newsboys strike in New York City in protest to unfair price hikes on the newspapers they sell — papers they are forced to pay for ahead of time, with no return policy on those that don’t find readers.
 
“So the world says no? Well, the kids do too,” they sing.
 
“Empowering youth is my job,” Harry said. And while the musical is based on a real-life newsboy strike in 1899, youth today are still fighting for a better world, striking for gun control and climate legislation, she added.
 
She also changed the traditionally all male-identifying newsies to include female characters.
 
“There were many young girls who were also newsies and required to work at an early age to support the family,” she said. “I told my ensemble to pick the gender of their character and play accordingly, empowering them to create the personality that would fit the best.”
 
For some, that means playing a male in one role and a female in another; more than one of the actors plays dual or even triple roles.
 
For their part, the students handle all of the musical’s challenges beautifully. The dances are indeed difficult, but they make it look easy — and it’s clear they are enjoying themselves.
 
The singing, as always, is fantastic, and the actors take to their roles with relish. You feel for their characters, root for them as they take on a corporation against all odds, laugh and mourn alongside them, and it’s because of the talented actors cast in each role. It’s easy to forget these are high school students. Or, in two cases, middle schoolers.
 
Kenealy said the main challenge with the music is “that there are a lot of technical challenges for every member of the ensemble.
 
“A few of the big numbers have everyone playing loud, high, and fast for long periods of time, which is always a tiresome combination. A lot of the work we have done as a group has been around building the stamina to see the big pieces through to the end without losing energy or speed. It is a steep learning curve,” he said.
 
He points to veteran musicians Bob Smith, Linda Taylor, Kate Dougherty, Nathan Parker and CJ Thorp, who have been playing in the pit band with Kenealy since 2016’s “Catch Me If You Can,” and Larry Wyatt, who has been in the pit band since 2015’s “Grease.”
 
“I’m so honored that they keep coming back and playing year after year,” he said.
 
“This music has been a blast to pull together, and I think audiences are going to love seeing all the amazing choreography set to this music,” he said.
“I’m incredibly grateful to all the musicians who give so much of their time and energy to making this show happen, putting in hours upon hours of energy to this show. After all, what’s a musical without music? We couldn’t do it without them.”

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