‘Whenever you talk with a Wheelock Family Theatre alum about their experience there,” Jacob Kemp says, “their eyes widen. It’s as if they’re talking about hallowed ground. Even as I talk to you now, my heart starts racing.”
We can’t see Kemp’s eyes or check his pulse, because he’s on the phone from Washington, D.C. But the reason he’s there makes his point.
Kemp is one of the stars of the national tour of the Disney musical “Newsies,” coming to the Opera House Tuesday though July 5. He plays Davey, a young man who becomes an unlikely firebrand of the New York newsboys strike, based on real events in 1899, that is the heart of the show.
He credits Wheelock as the place where his acting caught fire.
It “was my home away from home, my haven, my stamping ground,” says Kemp, 26, who grew up in Needham and acted in Wheelock shows from sixth grade through high school.
Retired Wheelock cofounder Jane Staab recalls Kemp’s “angelic” singing voice. “I remember adding a young boy character to ‘Hello Dolly’ just so I could cast this passionate boy — who auditioned without a care that there were no children in the production.”
Wheelock staffers remember him paired with actress Andrea Ross, who is still a friend, as Howie and Ramona in a 2004 production of “Ramona Quimby” and as Leisl and Rolf in “The Sound of Music” (“their duet was sooooo lovely” e-mails one) the next year. Kemp also acted in “Kimberly Akimbo” with Boston Theatre Works and in “Fame” at North Shore Music Theatre, and trained in the young actors program at the Huntington Theatre Company before moving on to Yale, from which he graduated with honors, and a professional career. But he names his final Wheelock show, playing Ralph in a 2005 “Lord of the Flies,” as “an artistic experience I will never forget.”
“The arc of that role over the course of a performance was a challenge that left me drained, empowered, and hungry for more,” Kemp says.
While most actors in his position would be talking about getting hometown friends to come to the Opera House, Kemp says, “I can’t wait to take some of my ‘Newsies’ cast to visit Wheelock.” (It will have to be a backstage visit because Wheelock’s next show, “The Trumpet of the Swan,” doesn’t open until October.)
The “Newsies” musical is based on the 1992 movie about plucky newsboys — many of them orphans and runaways — fighting back against pay cuts and a system stacked against them. It was nominated for eight 2012 Tony Awards and won two, for the score by Alan Menken and Jack Feldman and the choreography by Christopher Gattelli.
Dan DeLuca stars as newsboy Jack Kelly, a budding artist who looks out for his disabled friend Crutchie (Zachary Sayle) and dreams of a better future in Santa Fe. Stephanie Styles is Katherine, a young reporter who becomes Jack’s love interest, and Steve Blanchard is the profit-minded newspaper mogul Joseph Pulitzer.
Kemp’s Davey shows up to sell papers with his little brother Les (Vincent Crocilla or Anthony Rosenthal). They’re not streetwise kids like Jack and the other newsies, but their father has been injured in an accident and their family needs the money. Davey takes up the cause, stepping in to rally the newsies when Jack’s energy flags. The resulting song, “Seize the Day,” is Davey’s big moment, just before intermission.
“Behind every great hero I really believe there is a Davey,” Kemp says. “It’s really thanks to Davey that the union continues to stay on course as they fight for their goal, even as the rest of them lose hope.”
The key to finding the character? “Working with our voice, speech, and dialect coach, Shane Ann Younts,” Kemp says. “Working on Davey’s physical voice, not only the dialect of where he comes from, in Brighton Beach [in Brooklyn], but also using the power of his voice, because [Davey] is above all else a supporter of using your voice over physical action. Creating a series of vocal exercises to warm me up for the show each night really became the key that unlocked everything.”
“Newsies” director Jeff Calhoun calls Kemp “one of the smartest actors that I have ever worked with.”
“He wasn’t afraid to challenge us about the text and/or his motivation for saying or doing something,” Calhoun says by e-mail from Korea, where he is working on a musical about Mata Hari. “Many actors are shy about such confrontation, especially when re-creating a role [from] a successful show. Jacob had no such reservations. I appreciated and respected his process and his intelligence was noted from his initial audition.”
Calhoun has been with “Newsies” from the beginning, at the Paper Mill Playhouse in New Jersey in 2011 before its Broadway run. He says there’s no question the show’s underdog spirit meant something extra to many audience members in the tough times after the 2008 economic meltdown.
That, “coupled with newspaper headlines about certain states trying to destroy unions helped make our story feel less about the turn of the century and more about the present social economic climate,” Calhoun says.
But that’s a matter of luck, not design, he says. “In the decades that passed between the movie and the creation of the stage show, we could not have known what headlines would be dominating the conversation. Serendipity is, more times than not, responsible for any show that captures the zeitgeist of any period.”
Speaking of zeitgeist, Kemp also has a recurring role on ABC’s “Black-ish,” the Anthony Anderson sitcom about an upper-middle-class black family wrestling with their place in today’s culture. Kemp plays Kris, one of Anderson’s co-workers.
“What I love about Kris is that he, unlike Davey, he has no filter,” Kemp says. “He really speaks his mind.”
The scheduling worked out in conversations between his manager and the ABC/Disney conglomerate, with an assist from corporate synergy. Kemp has often taken a flight from wherever “Newsies” is playing to Los Angeles to shoot his scenes for the show on Monday, his day off from the stage, returning in time for a Tuesday night performance. Fortunately “Black-ish” is a single-camera show, shot more like a movie than the traditional sitcom that tapes before a live audience, so his scenes can be scheduled that way.
“I feel extremely lucky,” Kemp says. Despite the different mediums and some different techniques, “I’ve learned that ultimately [my job] is just to be authentic under the given circumstances of the scene and listen and be brave and stay in the moment at all costs. And that’s been a great lesson.”
Music by Alan Menken, lyrics by Jack Feldman
Book by Harvey Fierstein
Directed by Jeff Calhoun
Presented by Disney Theatrical Productions and Broadway in Boston
At: Boston Opera House, 539 Washington St.,
June 23-July 5
Tickets: Starting at $44, 800-982-2787, www.broadwayinboston.comJoel Brown can be reached at email@example.com.