My college roommate Theresa is the world’s biggest fan of the 1992 Disney film, “Newsies.” The well-loved VHS copy she owns provided the backdrop to many a study-deferring undergrad evening. Motivated by fond reminiscence, as well as a general affinity for Broadway entertainment, I eagerly signed on to review the 2012 Tony Award-winner for Best Score and Choreography.
Those trophies are well-deserved. As my companion for the evening observed, “The dancing alone made it worthwhile. The cast was clearly not hired for acting, but that was some of the best dancing and choreography I have ever seen.” Slipped between the compliments about the fleet-footed crew of the Chicago production lies the problem.
The book, which I was surprised to read was written by four-time Tony Award-winner Harvey Fierstein, is plodding. And although the performers have physical grace and big voices — without exception — thespian skills appear to be a secondary requirement for this show. That’s a shame.
Because as the production’s promotional materials highlight, “Newsies” is “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.” With important history underpinning the source material — urban poverty, child labor abuses, and robber barons squeezing the already impoverished — the dialogue should feel a little less superficial than it ultimately does.
The film, which introduced much of the world to actor Christian Bale, is of course guilty of this as well (sorry Theresa). But I had hoped the transition to Tony Award-winning stage musical would result in greater heft all around. As already suggested, the original movie score, composed by legends Alan Menken and Jack Feldman, receives a turbo boost with seven new songs including the heartbreaking “Letter from the Refuge.” These new tunes supplement stage-ready barn burners such as “King of New York.”
The choreography from Christopher Gattelli is nothing short of amazing. There’s a scene before intermission where the newsies are each dancing gently atop torn newspaper sheets in faultless chorus. It’s hard not to wonder how many rehearsal injuries were produced to yield the perfect execution of this scene. The agility and acrobatics of the ensemble gives any Cirque du Soleil cast a run for its money. The children in the audience on the evening of the press premiere were enthralled.
I suppose at the end of the day, that’s the usual Disney target audience and “Newsies” is certainly family-friendly entertainment. Adults and devoted theater fans however, may find themselves in need of a little more grit. Particularly given the ripe opportunities offered by a true story of underdog triumph.
Joey Barreiro, who plays newsie hero Jack Kelly in this production, is adorable and exhibits a solid awareness of comedic timing. There’s also dependable, if one-dimensional, performances from Steve Blanchard and Kevin Carolan as historical figures Joseph Pulitzer and Teddy Roosevelt, respectively. And Aisha de Haas’s portray of Medda Larkin almost made me forget festering anger about the hooker with a heart of gold trope foisted upon the cast’s one and only woman of color. Almost. Her vocal chops are that cutting.
These observations aside, there’s nothing memorable about the acting. Morgan Keene as Katherine is ironically soft and non-threatening for a modern 20th Century woman ready to challenge the male-dominated field of journalism. Stephen Michael Langton, making his national tour debut as nervous union co-founder Davey, shows dramatic promise. I’d like to watch him perform again with more substantive material.
As I’ve already said, I’m aware of “Newsies” family-oriented target audience. However I would argue that “The SpongeBob Musical,” another Summer 2016 Broadway in Chicago offering, pleases the children without forgetting that adults actually buy the tickets. So many layers to that production. I would like to see a couple more added here.
“Newsies” runs through August 7 at the Cadillac Palace Theatre, 151 W Randolph Street, Chicago, IL. For information or tickets, call 800-775-2000 or visit the Broadway in Chicago website.