Jeff Calhoun knows talent when he sees it.
In 1992, the choreographer and director was sitting in a Detroit rehearsal hall when a lanky girl tromped into the room wearing flip-flops.
“I needed ladies for the tour of ‘The Will Rogers Follies,’ ” Calhoun said in a phone interview, recalling his surprise at the young performer’s casual demeanor and less-than-traditional choice of footwear. “But I hired her because her talent was undeniable.”
The girl in the flip-flops was Sutton Foster, a true triple-threat who ranks as one of the top musical theater performers in the world and went on to brighten Broadway with Tony-winning lead performances in “Thoroughly Modern Millie” and “Anything Goes,”
Two years later, Calhoun’s eye for young talent fell on the unknown actress Megan Mullally, who made her Broadway debut in his production of “Grease” before going on to wider fame. And it’s fallen on dozens of gifted young performers whose names we don’t yet know, but soon might.
One or more future Broadway superstars may well be present in Shea’s Performing Arts Center on Tuesday, when the touring version of Calhoun’s hit show “Newsies” plays the first of eight performances.
The Disney production, based on the 1992 film of the same name about striking newsboys in turn-of-the-century New York City, is still doing big business on Broadway, where it clinched two 2012 Tony Awards for its score and choreography.
Calhoun said the energy and talent of the young performers who walked into his audition room for “Newsies” – whether in flip-flops, tap shoes or ballet flats – is central to its appeal.
“It’s one of my favorite things, having a show that gives me the opportunity to discover new talent,” he said. “I see myself in them. I was their age when I was doing it, and it’s just so beautiful to look at them and be reminded of yourself at that age when the world was still your oyster and anything was possible, and that’s the energy that comes off the stage. The energy and the feeling of goodwill is just infectious with this show, and I think that is really the key to its success.”
A few other keys, according to Calhoun: a solid book by Harvey Fierstein and a score by Disney’s go-to composer Alan Menken (with lyrics by Jack Feldman), both of which were in place before he signed on to the project.
“I came in after they did most of that work. It changed subtly after that, but all the heavy lifting really was done as far as the writing was concerned when I came aboard,” he said.
Calhoun’s job on “Newsies,” aside from exercising his talent-detector, was to infuse the show with the same kind of economy and energy he brought to Disney’s “High School Musical” in 2007 while also paying tribute to a time when dance-driven Broadway spectacles like Bob Fosse’s “Cabaret” and Michael Bennett’s “A Chorus Line” ruled the day.
“It’s really a throwback to that era, but with a very modern-looking, 21st century production,” he said.
Unlike some productions that come fresh from Broadway to Shea’s, Calhoun and his creative team have made some major tweaks.
“There’s a whole new song in act two for one of the characters called Crutchy, who was not on the Broadway show,” he said. “Harvey did some judicial editing and [we] reblocked and choreographed the show with the new DNA from the new boys that we hired to be in the show.
“You never want to hire dancers and then make them do what their predecessors did, because then you’re going to have sort of a poor imitation. We’d rather find what these boys do and what are their specialties, and we tailor the show around that.”