By Cate Marquis, staff writer
The Fox Theater jump-starts 2016 right with “Newsies,” an award-winning Broadway musical packed with electrifying dance numbers, catchy tunes, and a terrific story, which runs through January 31.
Originally a 1992 Disney film, the “Newsies” story is based on the real newsboys strike of 1899, when orphaned and runaway teenaged newsboys in New York went on strike after newspaper publishers Pulitzer and Hearst raised the price they charged them for distributing newspapers.
The Disney film was not a hit when released in theaters but developed a cult following after its DVD release. The Broadway show, on the other hand, has been a surprise hit from the start. The movie’s story was adapted for the stage by Tony-winning actor/writer Harvey Fierstein, with additional songs by fellow Tony-winner Alan Menken (who composed the music for “The Little Mermaid”),lyrics by Jack Feldman, and high-energy choreography by Christopher Gattelli. The stage version was nominated for eight Tonys and won for Best Score and Best Choreography.
Joey Barreiro plays Jack Kelly, a charismatic leader among the rag-tag army of teen-aged newsies who deliver papers daily to New Yorkers in 1899. Most of the newsies are orphans or runaways who go by colorful nicknames‑—like Jack’s best friend Crutchie (Zachary Sayle)‑—and, despite their poverty, have a wisecracking, in-your-face attitude. Jack befriends a pair of newby newsies: Davey (Stephen Michael Langton) and his nine-year-old brother Les (John Michael Pitera and Ethan Steiner, alternating). Unlike the other newsies, these boys have parents but they are forced to help support their family after their father lost his job following an injury.
When the publisher of their newspaper, Joseph Pulitzer (Steve Blanchard), decides to increase profits and circulation by raising the price he charges newsies for copies of his paper, “The World,” the outraged newsies decide to strike. With Jack’s charismatic leadership and Davey’s ideas, they are soon joined by newsies from other papers, which have also raised rates. In a showdown between the haves and have-nots, labor and bosses, kids and adults, the story resonates in today’s atmosphere. The newsies find an ally in teenage “girl reporter” Katherine (Morgan Keene), who is fighting another kind of battle for fair treatment. They also are helped by a vaudeville theater performer/owner named Medda Larkin (Aisha de Haas), and there are reoccurring references to Governor Teddy Roosevelt (Kevin Carolan), Pulitzer’s enemy.
The story basics are the same as the film but some details and relationships are different, and the changes make for a better story. In this version, Crutchie is Jack’s best friend, a part Davey played in the film. Davey is still the brains behind the strike, with Jack as the newsies’ charismatic leader. The roles of the reporter and Davey’s sister are combined into a new character, a teenage girl reporter who is ambitious to break out of society and culture assignments to report real news, and also serves as Jack’s love interest.
It is a good story but much of the production’s enjoyment comes from the spectacular dance numbers. Since nearly all the characters are teen boys, there is an energetic bravura to the song and dance numbers, with anthem-like lyrics to the catchy tunes. The newsboys perform a number of high-kicking, high-energy dance numbers, packed with spins and an amazing number of high-sailing back flips. Standout numbers include “The World Will Know” and “Seize the Day,” both of which feature high-flying leaps and breath-taking back flips. Another showstopper is “King of New York,” the rousing anthem that opens the second act, and where the boys tap dance and tear up newspapers.
Both the individual actors and the large ensemble cast are wonderful. Barreiro is great as Jack, a wonderful role that conveys both self-confidence and charisma, as well as a boy struggling to make his way and filled with dreams of a better life. That side of Jack is told in the song “Santa Fe,” where he tells best friend Crutchie about his dream to move out West. Sayle’s Crutchie is a perpetual optimist, both funny and appealing, while de Haas shows brassy charm as vaudevillian Medda Larkin. Keene is appealing and idealistic as reporter Katherine, and Blanchard is satisfyingly villainous as the greedy publisher.
The staging is terrific, with a complex set that transforms into street scenes, roof tops, fire escapes, theater backstage, and the lush offices of Joseph Pulitzer. Some of the song and dance numbers take place on the production’s huge multilevel movable sets, which serve as fire escapes, building fronts, and theater backstage. Costumes are excellent and the ensemble cast keeps everything moving.
Add it all up—a terrific uplifting story, amazing high-soaring dancing, memorable hummable songs, an outstanding cast of colorful characters, and some amazing‑and huge‑moving sets—and “Newsies” is everything you want a big Broadway musical to be.