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Carter Santos, right, and Henry O'Brien act out their roles as Davey Jacobs and Jack Kelly respectively during a dress rehearsal for 'Newsies" at South Kingstown High School on Feb. 4.

SOUTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. — A ragtag young group of newspaper hawkers that work the streets of New York City in 1899 band together to fight for a better life in the Rebel Theater Group’s production of “Newsies.”

Coming off of a hit production of “The Addams Family” last year, South Kingstown High School’s theater group will stage performances of “Newsies” Feb. 6-9 at the high school. The students made their final full dress rehearsal Tuesday evening.

Inspired by the real-life newsboys strike of 1899 against publishers Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst, “Newsies” is based on a Tony Award-winning musical and a 1992 film of the same name.

It’s the tale of Jack Kelly, a charismatic newsboy and leader of a band of teen-aged “newsies.” When the titans of publishing raise distribution prices at the newsboys’ expense, Jack rallies newsies from across the city to strike against the unfair conditions.

The musical features the classic songs “Carrying the Banner,” “Seize the Day” and “Santa Fe,” along with large doses of dancing, jumping, running, tumbling and twirling by the cast.

“If you ask anybody who does ‘Newsies,’ it’s all dancing,” said Henry O’Brien, 18, the senior who plays Jack Kelly.

The role forced O’Brien, who said he’s not a dancer, out of his comfort zone. Memorizing lines, by comparison, is a lot easier, he said.

“I’m used to shows that are mostly singing,” he said.

It’s a lot of physically demanding work. But, he’s wanted the role since he was eight, he said.

“I’m really excited to do it,” he added.

He’ll be joined on stage by Caroline Parente, 17, who plays Katherine Plumber, a reporter drawn to the newsies’ cause.

“She sees that the newsies don’t really have a voice, so she becomes their voice and writes an article about them when no one else will,” she said.

The senior has starred in “The Addams Family” and “The Sound of Music,” and is excited to be in “Newsies.” She’s seen the show hundreds of times, so can run her lines practically in her sleep.

“This school puts on amazing theater productions,” she said. “Every year is a new learning experience. This year, for ‘Newsies,’ dance is a big challenge. It’s been really fun, especially the tap number.”

Carter Santos, 16, plays Davey Jacobs, who starts selling papers with his kid brother when their family falls on hard times.

“Unlike the newsies, he kind of has a life, he has two parents, his younger brother,” he said.

Davey is reluctant to join the newsies in their mission to strike, at first. But he proves to play a key role in the outcome.

It’s a thrill for Santos, who grew up with O’Brien and honed his skills with the Contemporary Theater Company, Theatre By The Sea camps and plays during his time at Curtis Corner Middle School.

He’s struck by how fully his fellow students embrace their roles, along with the late 1800s costumes and vernacular of street kids at the time.  

“It’s cool to see a lot of people out of their comfort zone, it’s amazing and shows dedication,” Santos said.

Excitement for the shows has been running high for several months.

“We had a huge response to auditions – we had over 80 kids audition,” director Ryan Muir said.

Between cast, orchestra and backstage production crews, more than 100 students are involved in bringing the show to the stage. They’ve been at it since early November.

Getting “Newsies” off the ground has been a school-wide collaboration, Muir said.

Sets built in teacher Eric Swanson’s carpentry classes at the school bring the brick buildings and multi-story tenements of the Bowery to the stage. Photography teacher Dan Gagnon produced all the publicity photos and posters, and Ann Bianchi’s fashion design class made newspaper bags for the large cast of newspaper carriers.

“They built a printing press, they assembled newspapers, the boxes we stand on to sell the papers,” O’Brien said. “We’ve got a little bit of everybody.”

Early online ticket sales for the shows are almost sold out, Muir said, but general admission will be available the day of the show. Performances are at 7 p.m. daily except for Feb. 9, which is a 2 p.m. show. Information about performances can be found on the group’s website, Rebeltheatergroup.com.

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