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.


Missing in Action: The Week’s Overlooked News Stories


Ill–received attacks on equality blamed upon business leaders, young people with shingles and why did Academy Award-winning actor Robert De Niro have to take a stand against anti-vaccers? Here’s what might have escaped your notice this week….

In last week’s Missing in Action column, we talked about a piece of anti-LGBT legislation, known as the “Religious Liberty Bill,” which was headed to the Governor of Georgia’s desk. Thankfully, Nathan Deal vetoed that bill amid outrage from gay rights groups and community business leaders. Corporations like Disney, Apple, and Time Warner threatened to change their dealings in the state if discrimination was signed into action. Well it’s 2016 folks and political gall is in long supply. In an act of incredible and laughable hypocrisy, a conservative group is calling Georgia businesses “corporate bullies,” claiming they’ve “declared war” on religion. Just so we’re clear on their position: it’s completely fine to deny basic services to LGBT citizens, but not ok to object to hateful policy by hitting a bunch of backward state legislators in the wallet. Alrighty then.

This week, a member of the team came down with a not-so-fun case of shingles, an adult reactivation of the chicken pox virus. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends people over the age of 60 get the shingles vaccine. Commercials promoting the shot are all over television. But here’s the rub – our suffering staff member is only 35 years-old. In fact she’s the second person in that demographic personally known to us to contract the painful illness within the last nine months. It turns out, shingles ain’t just a middle-aged disease. There are plenty of 30-somethings afflicted with this “older” people problem. In an article published earlier this year, Fox 5 in Atlanta found three women in their 30s struggling with the painful effects of Shingles, left wondering how they contracted the illness. Doctors don’t seem to have any answers, but anecdotally our staff member is certain the multi-prong stressors of career, family and the search for personal fulfillment are a factor in increased shingles cases (and other diseases) among late Gen Xers/early Millennials.

To continue the theme of item #2, you can’t get shingles if you didn’t have chicken pox, and you won’t contract chicken pox if you were vaccinated as a child. Our staff member is infinitely happy that her kids won’t suffer the way she is. Vaccines are good. They prevent horrible maladies like measles, polio, and diphtheria (does anyone even know what that is?). But there are still those who stubbornly ignore scientific fact. In 2010, Andrew Wakefield was stripped of his medical license for linking vaccines to autism in a discredited 1998 study. And now a documentary about Wakefield has been pulled from the Tribeca Film Festival by co-founder Robert De Niro. It seems this is a long-running controversy that just can’t be put to rest. Where’s Jenny McCarthy?