DENHAM SPRINGS -- Grayson Barraco was always a quiet kid.
A homeschooler all his life, Barraco preferred to be alone, mostly talking to himself and rarely to others. If he was ever invited to parties, he’d usually decline. If he accepted the invite, he’d usually just stand in the corner, sipping water.
“It was kind of a problem, and I knew it was a problem,” Barraco said. “I knew it wasn’t me, but everyone goes through those times.”
Barraco would eventually break out of his shell — and it happened the moment he walked on stage.
Barraco, a 19-year-old lifelong resident of Denham Springs, is currently in the midst of his first run with Theatre Baton Rouge, which is in full swing with its highly-anticipated production of “Disney’s Newsies.”
With a cast of 43 actors, 45 crew members and 70 costumes, “Newsies” is one of the company’s biggest shows in years, depicting New York City through large-scale dance numbers and full-bodied show tunes.
Set at the turn of the century, “Newsies” follows the rousing story of Jack Kelly, a charismatic newsboy and leader of a ragged band of teenaged “newsies” who dreams of a better life far from the hardship of the streets.
But when publishing titans Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst raise distribution prices at the newsboys’ expense, Jack finds a cause to fight for and rallies newsies from across the city to strike for what’s right.
The play follows the 1992 Disney film starring Christian Bale, which was inspired by the real-life “Newsboy Strike of 1899,” when newsboy Kid Blink led a band of orphan and runaway newsies on a two-week-long action against Pulitzer, Hearst and other powerful newspaper publishers.
So far, the play has been a success, with Theatre Baton Rouge adding extra showings July 5-6 to its original 21-show slate.
In the musical, Barraco lends his talents to the role of Davey Jacobs, the book-smart kid who inadvertently gives Jack Kelly the idea to start the strike (as well as making sure to create the Newsboys’ Union to protect the strikers).
Barraco said he saw “Newsies” twice at the Saenger Theatre in New Orleans when he was younger and always thought it would be “an amazing one” to be a part of.
He had no idea that dream would actually come true years later.
Though it’s Barraco’s first time performing with Theatre Baton Rouge, he’s no stranger to the stage.
He first got involved with theater around 14 years old, when his older sister performed as part of Christian Youth Theater (CYT) Baton Rouge. While his older sister rehearsed and his mother made costumes, Barraco worked with the backstage crew.
“I was always at the theater, so I figured why not help with the production,” he said. “They told me I could make the curtain go up and down, which was pretty cool.”
For the next CYT production of “A Little Princess” in the spring of 2014, Barraco decided to see what it’d be like on stage, though he had never heard of the musical or even taken voice lessons.
During his audition, he sang “Santa Fe,” the opening song from “Newsies” — not knowing he’d perform in that same play a few years later. The directors liked what they saw from Barraco, giving him a speaking part and a solo.
It was a life-changing moment.
“I couldn’t really sing, but I taught myself how to sing,” he said. “‘A Little Princess’ was when I started opening up to doing more musicals and when I really started to think that I enjoyed theater.”
During his later teenage years, Barraco became a regular face in CYT Baton Rouge productions, performing in lead roles such as Donkey in “Shrek the Musical,” Trident in “The Little Mermaid,” Grandpa Joe in “Willy Wonka,” and the titular roles in “Aladdin” and “The Music Man.” His final CYT role was Hook in “Peter Pan.”
Barraco credited the people at CYT for helping him find his voice and confidence on stage — not to mention bringing him out of his shell.
“It was the people in CYT who really helped bring me out,” he said. “Everybody helped me. I’m so glad it was this specific theater that did it. I don’t know if it would’ve happened anywhere else. It’s a family atmosphere at CYT. There’s no playing around, but we had fun.”
It wasn’t just the collaborative, family atmosphere CYT co-founders David and Tonya Rainey fostered that Barraco said helped him in his early stages. The professionalism with which they treated the actors — who were between the ages of 4-18 — made Barraco take acting as seriously as any job.
“It’s no joke when it comes to the shows — we were given the Broadway script, which meant we were supposed to put on the same shows they put on,” Barraco said. “So to put on plays that adults were doing was always an incredible feeling, and it made you work that much harder.”
He’s been working even harder for “Newsies,” which required the cast to practice its acting, singing and dancing routines 18 hours a week for 10 weeks — not including two 10-hour run-throughs the weekend before opening night.
Barraco said his experience with Theatre Baton Rouge has been much different than CYT, “but a good kind of different.”
“With ‘Newsies,’ the whole experience has been a lesson for me,” he said. “I told the music director I’ve never taken a voice lesson before, so it’s been really good for me. They’ve taught me on a professional level.
“It’s for sure different, but not a bad different,” he continued. “I do feel loved by the people here… and our director, Jenny Ballard, was so welcoming when I auditioned. It reminded me so much of CYT. But getting on the stage with different people, a different audience and in an entirely different place is a little scary. But at this point, it’s close enough to keep me from passing out.”
After his run on “Newsies” concludes, Barraco will start preparing for his first semester at Southeastern Louisiana University, where he plans to study musical education and perform in the SLU Theatre Department.
But thoughts of college are still far from his mind as he continues taking the stage in what he calls "the biggest production of his life."
“It’s gonna be really tough to get through all these shows, but every time we get on stage, we get so energized and excited to share a story on something that really happened,” he said. “It’s gonna be one of the greatest shows that I’ve ever been a part of.”