Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Newsies is based on the 1992 Disney movie musical of the same name. The film was respectfully received, but never caught box office fire. However, over the years it acquired somewhat of a cult status, leading to the decision to bring it to the stage. The stage musical uses six of the film's eight songs by Alan Menken and Jack Feldman, and adds seven news songs composed by the same team. Harvey Fierstein's book polishes the film's original script with a strong plotline, snappy dialogue, and an emotional hook that makes us care about the characters, and makes the issues matter.
That story is based on a chapter in labor history, the New York City newsboys strike of 1899. In a pre- radio and television, let alone pre-Internet world, newspapers were hugely influential, and their publishers among the most powerful and wealthy members of society. The papers were hawked throughout the city by young boys, "newsies," who had to pay in advance for the papers, then hope to sell them all. Most of the newsies lived in abject poverty, many as orphans or runaways, others working to support their families. When Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst raised the price they charged newsies for their papers, the unthinkable happened: the newsies organized a union and went on strike. Against the odds, they gained concessions. The strike also shed light on the widespread issue of child labor in the city.
Newsies adheres to the basic historical context, but tells the tale through fictional characters and a fairy tale type ending (well, it is a Disney show). Seventeen-year-old Jack Kelly is the central character, the charismatic unofficial leader of the newsies working for Pulitzer's New York World. Close to Jack is a newsie called Crutchie, owing to his deformed leg, to whom Jack is a big brother. Jack dreams of getting out their grueling existence and moving to the sun-drenched easy life he imagines in Santa Fe.
A new member of the newsies team, Davey, and his nine-year-old brother Les bond with Jack, and they form the nucleus of the hastily formed union. Davey is new to the streets, leaving school to earn money while his father recovers from a workplace injury, but he soon recognizes the principles of justice that are at stake, not only for him and the newsies, but for workers like his father. A fledgling newspaper reporter, Catherine, takes up the newsies' cause and helps them make their case on the front page.
The show chronicles the ups and downs of the newsies campaign, their effort to recruit the boys from Harlem and the outer boroughs, and a not-too surprising romance between Jack and Catherine. We also are treated to scenes in a turn of the century musical hall and a Lower East Side Jewish deli. That fairy-tale ending includes somewhat better terms than the actual strike achieved, along with appearances by the mayor of New York City and then-governor of New York State, Theodore Roosevelt. No matter, we get the idea of right and wrong, along with a lovely lump in the throat.
Most notable of Newsies' many solid qualities is the dancing, both the imaginative, dare-devil choreography and the amazing skill with which the dance ensembleall maleexecutes it. Dressed as newsboys with tight pants, ragged shirts and vests, and jaunty caps, the stage repeatedly explodes with exuberant boy-energy"Carrying the Banner," "Seize the Day," and "King of New York" in particular. Christopher Gattelli absolutely earned his best choreography Tony Award for Newsies.
The songs themselves are a memorable collectionthose mentioned above, along with the fiery call to arms "The World Will Know," first blush of love "Something to Believe In," the passionate anthem "Once and for All," and Jack's yearning dream of escape, "Santa Fe." Catherine's "Watch What Happens" is a great example of a song that develops character and advances plot. She struggles to summon her confidence in order to support the newsies' strike while trying to ignore a spark of interest in Jack beyond the campaign. Like Catherine, the song beings with choppy, uncertain lines that develop into a cascading, confident melody.
The songs are sung beautifully, with especially rousing choral work. Jeff Calhoun's staging helps immensely, finding ways to group and regroup the ensemble to maximum effect. The closing bars of "Once and for All" is a prime example, with the determined newsboys each occupying a spot on the multi-tiered scaffolding towers that move forward toward the audience, confronting us with the power and innocence of their convictions. Manipulative stage craft? Perhaps, but man, does it ever work.
Throughout the show, those three towers move in formation to create settings and provide the crowded tenement environment in which these child labors live and work. There are screens that roll down on any number of cells drawn by the scaffolding, allowing for dazzling multiple projections on different points of Tobin Ost's stage set. The use of movable scaffolds has been growing in stage design since Robin Wagner's galvanizing set for Dreamgirls, but Newsies raises the bar on their choreographed movement.
The costumes designed by Jess Goldstein create an endearing gathering of newsies, along with high-tone duds for Pulitzer and his cronies, prim dresses for Catherine, and flouncy gowns for music hall queen Medda Larkin. Lighting design (Jeff Croiter) and sound design (Ken Travis) add to the home-run status of creative work on stage.
As for the performances, each and every one shines. Joey Barreiro is headline-worthy as Jack Kelly: sharp and cocky but with scarred places in his heart that come through with force in his "Santa Fe," and he plays the transition from flirtation to genuine pangs of love toward Catherine with conviction. Morgan Keene, as Catherine, sings beautifully, and her fresh-faced loveliness and needle-sharp spunk are in perfect balance.
Stephen Michael Langton, as Davey, brings depth, and a strong singing voice to the role, becoming the conscience of his band of newsies. Zachary Sayle gives Crutchie courage and tenderness. John Michael Pitera was young Les on opening night, and played the role with nine going on twenty-nine swagger. Steve Blanchard is a deliciously mercenary, heartless Pulitzer, and Aisha de Haas emits sultry warmth as Medda Larkin, the music hall star who gives shelter to Jack. Her musical number, "That's Rich," adds little to the narrative, but de Haas raises the roof with it. The ensemble all are terrific in song, dance and looks, and in playing a number of smaller roles.
We hear a lot these days about the gap between the top one percent and the growing number of those at the bottom. We have addressed child labor pretty thoroughly in this country, but purchase many of our goods from other nations where child labor goes unchecked. Certainly many of the issues raised in Newsies are heard in the current round of presidential candidate debates. Newsies is an interesting slice of history that continues to have great relevance to our society. Most of all, it is swell entertainment.
Newsies runs through February 14, 2016, at the Orpheum Theatre, 910 Hennepin Avenue, Minneapolis. The run is nearly sold out. Tickets: $39.00 -$154.00. For ticket information call 612-373-5661 or go to hennepintheatretrust.org. For more information on the tour, visit www.newsiesthemusical.com.
Music: Alan Menken; Lyrics: Jack Feldman; Book: Harvey Fierstein, from the Disney film written by Bob Tzudiker and Noni White; Director: Jeff Calhoun; Choreographer: Christopher Gattelli; Orchestrations: Danny Troob; Scenic Design: Tobin Ost; Costume Design: Jess Goldstein; Lighting Design: Jeff Croiter; Sound Design: Ken Travis; Original Broadway Projection Design: Sven Ortel; Projection Adaptation: Daniel Brodie; Wig and Hair Design: Charles G. LaPointe; Fight Direction: J. Allen Suddeth; Casting: Telsey + Company, Justin Huff, CSA; Music Director: James Dodgson; Music Coordinator: John Miller; Music Supervised and Arranged by: Michael Kosarin; Associate Producer: Anne Quart; Technical Supervisor: Geoffrey Quart; General Manager: Michael Height; Production Stage Manager: Jeff Norman; Associate Director: Richard J. Hinds; Associate Choreographer: Lou Castro
Cast: Mark Aldrich (Seitz, ensemble), Josh Assor (ensemble), Joey Barreiro (Jack Kelly), Bill Bateman (Medda's Stage Manager, ensemble) Steve Blanchard (Joseph Pulitzer), Joshua Burrage (Darcy, ensemble), Kevin Carolan (Governor Roosevelt, ensemble), DeMarius R. Copes (Henry, ensemble), Michael Dameski (a Scab, ensemble), Aisha de Haas (Medda Larkin, a Nun). Nico Dejesus (Romeo, ensemble), Sky Flaherty (Albert, a Scab, ensemble), Kaitlyn Frank (a Nun, ensemble), Michael Gorman (Wiesel, Mr. Jacobi, the Mayor, ensemble), Melissa Steadman Hart (a Nun, Hannah, ensemble), James Judy (Snyder, ensemble), Morgan Keene (Katherine), Stephen Michael Langton (Davey), Devin Lewis (Morris Delancey, ensemble), Nicholas Masson (Mush, Bill, ensemble), John Michael Pitera (Les *), Alex Prakken (Oscar Delancey, ensemble), Jordan Samuels (Specs, ensemble), Zachary Sayle (Crutchie), Ethan Steiner (Les *), Daniel Switzer (Race, ensemble), Chaz Wolcott (a Scab, ensemble), Iain Young (Finch, ensemble), Anthony Zas (Elmer, ensemble). * perform in alternate performances