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Alex Sanchez’s brilliant choreography headlines Marriott’s ‘Newsies’ energetic production through the holidays

Don’t look for Chicagoland’s best athletes on the hardwood or the ice at the United Center these days.

And that’s not because the Bulls are awful (though they are, John Paxson and Fred Hoiberg) or that the Blackhawks are disappointing (but they are, too, Stan Bowman and Joe Quenneville).

No, the area’s top athletic talents are truly in a different league, all together.

Recruited, signed and coached by Alex Sanchez for both their individual contributions and ability to be team players, these strong, nimble and deft sportsmen and sportswomen are good bets to be the area’s only team to go unbeaten through the rest of this year.

And they don’t need to bring in an outsider to sing the National Anthem, either.

Meet the cast of Marriott Theatre’s stellar production of Disney’s Newsies.

Their singing’s superb; their acting is stellar. But it’s this group’s meticulous execution of Sanchez’s truly sick choreography that patrons will be talking about during the car rides home. It’s the latest confirmation that musical theatre’s best directors are choreographers first (no surprise that Sanchez wears both hats for this production).

And the best choreographers employ stellar dance captains as their assistants. Kudos to Laura Savage who might just be the finest dancer on Chicagoland stages today and helps the director coax every ounce of energy from this massive 29-member holiday cast. (Side note to the Marriott powers that be: Savage deserves a lead role in Lincolnshire already.)

Indeed this is a cast of triple threat stars, led by three, who seamlessly work their way through an interesting story supported by a delicious songbook.

Patrick Rooney embodies the role of leading orphaned newsie, Jack Kelly, who displays artistic, romantic and leadership characteristics. He is at times tough, strong and vulnerable, with a wonderful voice and dance moves to match.

Eliza Palasz is the secretive cub reporter Katherine with a crush on her favorite interview subject. “Watch What Happens” is not simply this striking, angelic-voiced actress’ signature song in Newsies’ first act. It’s also an invitation to patrons so keep their eyes on her career.

Finally, as big brother to the littlest, most adorable newsie, Les (Carter Graf on opening night in a role shared with Zachary Uzarraga), Nick Graffagna is the perfectly-cast Davey. The character requires straight-man humor coupled with the leadership to offer Jack a simultaneous kick in the backside and shoulder to lean on. His voice is terrific, too.

These three spearhead the telling of Kelly’s story, set in 1890s New York City. A newspaper boy dreaming of a better life far from the hardship of the streets, Kelly leads his fellow newsies to unionize when publishing titans Joseph Pulitzerand William Randolph Hearst raise distribution costs at the carriers’ expense. Newsies is based on the true newsboy strike of 1899, when Kid Blinkled a two-week carrier strike against New York’s powerful newspaper publishers.

The surprising musical hit spun from a middling 1992 Disney movie. Initially staged at New Jersey’s Papermill Playhouse in 2011, the production received positive reviews, and Newsieswas reluctantly brought to Broadway for a limited engagement in spring 2012, where it won that year’s Tony Awards for original score (music by Alan Menken, lyrics by Jack Feldman) and choreography (Christopher Gattelli). The musical closed after 1,005 performances and has toured the nation since. Marriott’s staging marks its first Chicagoland regional production. A full history and plot synopsis may be read here.

Menken and Feldman’s strong and tender songbook finely complements the book by Harvey Fierstein. Massive showstoppers, “King of New York” and “Seize the Day” show off the cast members doing what they do best. “Watch What Happens,” “The World Will Know” and the ballad “Santa Fe” are added musical highlights.

Additional cast kudos go to three terrific performers. Matthew Uzarraga is an effective Crutchie who offers a warmhearted rendition of the solo ballad, “Letter From the Refuge.” Kevin Gudahl is an appropriately despicable Pulitzer who brings a winning, snarky greed to “The Bottom Line.” And Stephanie Pope is the bawdy and beautiful Medda Larkin whose “That’s Rich” is indeed so.

Music Direction by Ryan T. Nelson is Marriott’s typical spot-on. Set Designer Kevin Depinet‘s fascinating moving steel beams create illusions of rooftop and street-level spaces. And Sally Dolembo‘s costuming is period-perfect.

What all this adds up to is an enthusiastic imploration to “Stop the Press!” Marriott’s Newsies is a headline-grabbing, must-see family production that, not coincidentally, features the best athletes in town.