When we first saw Jonalyn Saxer, it was 2010. Jonalyn was an eighteen-year-old senior, playing Maria von Trapp in Oak Park High School’s performance of The Sound of Music. In my review in the Acorn, I wrote, “Saxer positively glows in every scene she is in.” Twelve years later, Jonalyn is still glowing. After graduating from Syracuse University with a BFA in Musical Theatre, she went straight to Broadway, where she made her debut as a swing in Bullets Over Broadway. A real-life Disney princess, Jonalyn’s infectious smile, sweet-natured personality, and stellar dancing talents have been seen in such Broadway productions as Honeymoon in Vegas, Holiday Inn, and Mean Girls. Recently, she appeared as a dancer in the gymnasium scene in Steven Spielberg’s film reimagining of West Side Story. Now, for the first time since she left for college, she is returning home to play a leading role in 5-Star Theatricals’ production of Newsies. Her role is as Katherine Plumber, the ambitious but vulnerable journalist with Joseph Pulitzer’s New York Sun. We spoke to Jonalyn in a Zoom call about her “upcoming homecoming.”
VCOS: Jonalyn, coming here to do Newsies in your home town screams, “cliché!” to me. You know, “Local Girl Makes Good On Broadway; Comes Home To Star In A Musical In Her Home Town.” Tell me how you feel about this return to your roots.
JONALYN: First, this is a show and a role I’ve been auditioning for since I graduated college and was never able to do. I remember that the week after I got Bullets Over Broadway, my Broadway debut, I got another callback for the tour of Newsies and I had to say, “Sorry! I’m on Broadway” and then the tour closed so I never really got around to doing it. But it’s something I’ve been literally working on since college. I remember going into callbacks and working with one of my teachers on the side. It’s been a long time since I’ve performed in this area and we were all looking forward to coming to the Pantages or the Dolby with Mean Girls, but that never happened. Mean Girls is coming back, but I’m no longer with the show, so this is an opportunity to still get to come back so my family and friends who haven’t seen me because they couldn’t make it out to New York can see me in a show. And that’s really exciting. What’s also exciting is that I didn’t play a lead role at Oak Park High School until Sound of Music in my senior year. I remember featured parts I tried to get and couldn’t. I auditioned for Cabrillo Music Theatre shows and some of them I got but there were a lot that I didn’t get. I didn’t even get to play one of the kids in The Sound of Music; I was a swing. I always felt like I was almost there but never quite got it. So it’s kind of fun to be able to come back after growing into the performer I am today. Since that time I’ve gone through training, experience, and mentorship and gained confidence over the years and can now finally come back and play a role!
VCOS: To this point, your Broadway career has consisted of mainly swing and ensemble roles. Do you consider playing the lead female role in Newsies a breakthrough?
JONALYN: Well, I did play Karen in Mean Girls when it was on tour, so that was me stepping into a more principal role but what was fun about that and also about Newsies is that I was able to step into a role and have no one know that I can dance. Often I’m thought of as a dancer who sings and acts really well, and that’s what has made me a great swing and a great understudy. But with Karen, I remember when we were in rehearsals, one of the ensemble members said to me, “Wait…you dance?” And I said, “Hey, I was in Cats.” I really came into my own as an actor during college and improved my voice through lessons, working, and practicing after I graduated. I had teachers who said, “I don’t care how well you dance, you need to be able to sing and act as if you can’t dance at all.” But I love singing and I love acting so it’s a blast to finally get to do that.
VCOS: Tell me about your character. Did you go research the real daughter of Joseph Pulitzer?
JONALYN: Not much at all. We learned about the history and time period during rehearsals but I like to work with what’s on the page and what Harvey Fierstein wrote. Katherine’s character isn’t in the original movie. It was kind of created just for this musical and I watched the videotape of the tour that was on Disney Plus but haven’t looked at it since, but I did see Kara Lindsay play the part on Broadway. Through working as an understudy I’ve learned to watch other people play roles and get my own ideas on how to do it, but sometimes you get trapped into doing it one way. Our director, Ricky Hinds, is being really wonderful about not copying the production that has been going on since it was at the Paper Mill Playhouse. With pre-existing material, you can fall into traps, trying to do what everyone else has done in the same way. Sometimes that’s the way to do it; you know, if it’s not broke, don’t fix it, but I still try to discover my character myself.
VCOS: The role is kind of ideal for you because Katherine appears to be a lot like you. She’s independent, she’s ambitious and confident about her abilities, and is moving into the male-dominated world of journalism and trying to make good on her own skills. Are you adding any elements of your own personality to the part?
JONALYN: I think with any character, you can never “become” somebody else, it’s always going to be your own interpretation because you react to the world because of your own experiences. For me, I like to find the comedy in everything. There are a lot of great moments in the Katherine-and-Jack relationship and her relationship with the newsies, but you could give three different actresses the same script and they’re all going to do it differently because they’re all different people.
VCOS: Your character’s highlight is the song “Watch What Happens,” which is a kind of soliloquy that jockeys back and forth between being a monolog and a song. It’s a perfect audition piece and I was wondering if that had been part of your repertoire even before being cast in this show.
JONALYN: Yeah, and I don’t know if you remember, but I did that at one of the old 5-Star car park concerts during COVID. I learned the song when I first auditioned for the tour of the show but I’ve always enjoyed doing it. I love fast-paced patter songs and sang it in cabarets but I don’t audition with it often.
VCOS: You just completed shooting the Steven Spielberg film version of West Side Story. Did that experience give you an interest in doing more movies or are you happy with being strictly a Broadway performer?
JONALYN: Oh yeah, who doesn’t want to do motion pictures? It’s like, “Oh, would you be interested in TV and film?” You’re not going to find somebody who says “No.” Film pays fantastic and it’s a lot less work! But I’m just open to every opportunity that comes along.
VCOS: Artistically, is your heart still in live theatre?
JONALYN: I think it’s in everything. Broadway is Broadway, but musical comedy is different from a drama or a straight play or an off-Broadway show or a song cycle or a new song or a revival. There are differences in film and TV, too. Is it a series, is it unlimited, is it on Netflix? They’re all so different so I think that everybody will find what they like and you fall into what works for you.
VCOS: You mentioned working in Cats which I’ve heard is a physically exhausting show. How does that measure up with Newsies, which is also dance intensive?
JONALYN: Our ensemble is working so hard and doing a fantastic job and I love being able to watch them, but you’re right, Cats is one of the most physically demanding shows and so was Mean Girls. The work you do when you’re in an ensemble is usually very demanding physically, but despite playing a lead role, I will never take for granted the ease that I have now.
VCOS: How has your dancing experience helped you? Does it form a base, a kind of floor of confidence that you build from?
JONALYN: Yes, it has. As a swing and as an understudy, I’ve learned many lessons. So much of performing is talent, training, and preparation, but it’s also self confidence. You could be trying something new or you could not be feeling great that day and are doing a number for a roomful of people who have never seen you do it before. And sometimes, when that happens, I look back at my Cats experience and think, “If I could do THAT, this is a walk in the park.” When I did Cats at night, I was rehearsing Mean Girls during the day. I wasn’t sleeping. I was drinking coffee and taking Ibuprofen and just doing my job the best I could. People were getting injured left and right. Now I can look back and say, “I did that. I can do anything.”
5-Star Theatricals’ production of Newsies runs from July 15 – 24 at the Fred Kavli Theatre at the Bank of America Performing Arts Center. For dates and showtimes, see the VC On Stage Calendar. Visit 5StarTheatricals.com for ticket information.