Mt. Ararat High School students pose for a photo in costumes in advance of the March 6-8 performances of “Newsies” at Orion Performing Arts Center. Courtesy photo

TOPSHAM — Mt. Ararat High School students are staging a strike.

The Mt. Ararat Stage Company presents “Newsies,” the story inspired by an 1899 newsboy strike in New York City starting next Friday.

“The idea of a group of 10 to 18 year olds fighting and taking a stance against injustices in their community is probably something we need more of in this day and age,” said Adam Blais, who directs and choreographs Mt. Ararat Stage Company productions. “For me, it’s the hope that the physical production, when they see it, will spark conversation or will spark relativity in the society in which they live.”

“Newsies,” based on the 1992 Disney motion picture, tells the tale of Jack Kelly, a charismatic newsboy who rallies his peers and leads the charge against injustice in New York City. During the Spanish-American War, when news of the war drove up the appetite for papers, publishers Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Heart raised the prices of newspapers. Newsies, generally children from disadvantaged backgrounds who earned money selling newspapers on the streets, purchased piles of 100 newspapers to sell for 65 cents, which increased to 85 cents during the war. When the war ended, Pulitzer and Hearst refused to return to the pre-war price, resulting in what would become known as the Newsboy Strike of 1899.

The nature of the production, with its social and historical context, lays the foundation for students to interpret and portray their perspectives based on their own personal experiences.

Mt. Ararat High School students rehearse for their upcoming production of “Newsies,” which takes the stage at Orion Performing Arts Center March 6-8. Kelli Park photo

“In some ways, I connect with the character because I understand his motives,” said sophomore Chase Ross, who portrays Jack. “Instead of just being a character that’s way out there, I understand what he’s going through.”

Sophomore Anna Coombs plays female newspaper reporter Katherine, who goes against her family and writes under an assumed name to make her way in an industry dominated by men at the time.

“It’s interesting to tie things back to this girl who was worried about not being taken seriously as a reporter,” Coombs said. “It’s interesting to see the differences between then and now. You have to be really into it if you’re going to be a reporter doing something that other people aren’t doing in that time period.”

“Newsies” has been in the works since the beginning of the school year, when Blais and Kristen Thomas, who handles production management and music at Mt. Ararat Stage Company, decided to tackle the fast-paced production with students.

“We tend to find shows that have both audience appeal and participant appeal. … We’re constantly trying to find the balance, and once we hit that balance, it’s a combination of trying to create a cohesive theater season,” said Blais. “We also look for shows that allow kids to be their own age as opposed to having a show that’s designed to have a bunch of 40 and 50 year olds playing all the leads,” Thomas added.

About 60 students have been rehearsing for the past three months for the musical, which features 10 dance numbers and an array of talent, including tumblers from the cheering team and an orchestra. Actors are also required to participate in at least one day of set construction. “I think there are bigger and better skills to learn through the process so we try to keep them as involved as possible, which is also hard because we move so fast. Whenever we can, we try to keep them involved along the way,” said Blais.

More than a century after the Newsboy Strike of 1899, the message remains the same. Enacting change is not restricted to the young, or to the old, to the individual or to the collective, Blais said.

“In no way, shape, or form did we pick this show to be like, ‘Hey guys, let’s go out and make change,’” Blais said. “It’s more like, ‘Know that change is always an option at whatever age.’ It’s more of an empowerment message than an ‘act now’ message, so it might not do anything now. But maybe ten years from now, or two years from now, or next week.”

“Newsies” hits the stage at 7:30 p.m. March 6 and 7, and at 3:30 p.m. March 8 at Orion Performing Arts Center at Mt. Ararat Middle School in Topsham. Tickets are $15 for adults or $12 for students and seniors.

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