Theatrical Review: Newsies
I realized in the last decade how ‘odd’ my viewing habits were as a child. Unlike many children, my parents didn’t raise me and my sisters on such live-action classics as The Wizard of Oz, The Sound of Music, or Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. However, in their place, came a steady stream of animated cartoons and animated feature films.
Live-action family films (from Disney) soon joined my theatrical viewing experiences, after seeing Who Framed Roger Rabbit in 1988. I would soon eagerly await many new live-action feature from the studio, with much anticipation for the company’s 1992 Spring release: Newsies. Touted as the first live-action musical from the studio since Mary Poppins, I eagerly came out on opening weekend with my Dad…only to find us 2 of only 6 people in that small movie theater in Waterloo, IA.
However, the music stuck with me, and a few months later, I got my Dad to buy the audio cassette of the film’s soundtrack. Unofficially, the soundtrack soon joined the rotation of audio cassettes for traveling to-and-from California, for the next 2 summers. Pretty soon, I had almost all the lyrics to Alan Menken & Jack Feldman’s songs memorized. The choral movements like Carrying the Banner, and Seize the Day were two that stuck in my mind for years.
Very rarely does Disney have a cult hit on their hands, but with home video and the internet, Newsies soon sparked interest from a newer, younger fanbase (some who call themselves, “Fansies”).
Throughout the years, there were numerous requests for a version of the story, that could be performed by high school or small theatre groups. Eventually, the fandom’s pleas to put this musical on stage was given the go-ahead by Disney, to which a small production was set to run at the Paper Mill Playhouse in New Jersey. This got me excited, but I couldn’t scrounge up the money to buy a ticket, figuring it’d be a one-time event that I’d just hear about down the line.
Instead, it did well, and even made it to Broadway, where it far exceeded expectations! The limited engagement was extended out to 2 years, and the production ended up winning several Tony Awards.
When it was announced that the show would start touring in 2014, I eagerly awaited its arrival in town. I had already become a fan of the show’s cast album, so I was more than eager to see it…an eagerness not unlike my 12-year-old self wishing to see the film in 1992.
Based on the events of the 1899 Newsboy Strike in New York, the production follows Jack Kelly (Dan DeLuca), struggling to eke out an existence selling newspapers, while pining to one day make it out west to Santa Fe, New Mexico.
Along with spending time with his good friend Crutchie (Zachary Sayle), Jack soon finds himself helping out brothers Davey (Jacob Kemp) and Les (Anthony Rosenthal) learn the trade of selling “papes.” However, the boys’ lives are thrown into turmoil when the owner of The New York World newspaper raises their prices to purchase papers to sell. Pretty soon, the boys find themselves struggling to be heard, in a world that would most likely wish to ignore them.
Harvey Fierstein’s adaptation does a commendable job of tightening up the film’s original plot, which oftentimes kept wanting to say a little too much. This can be both a blessing and a curse to those who grew up on the film. I will admit, I had to stop the little person in my head from checking things off the scorecard. For example, the roles of Davey and Les are truncated, to focus more on Jack. Fierstein’s also added a minor story element of Jack being a sketch/scenic artist on the side, which felt like it was stretching the believability a little too thin for me.
Speaking of Jack, DeLuca’s take on our lead newsie ended up being a love it/hate it affair. His accented voice felt almost like he was straining at times, putting a little too much ‘tough guy’ into his performance. Even so, he does give it his all when it comes to the song and dance, but I guess I’m not as acclimated to Jack Kelly having a slightly lower register than what Christian Bale, or Jeremy Jordan brought to the part(s).
In terms of familiarity, I was surprised by Benjamin Cook as Race(track, originally played by Max Casella in the film). Of all the adapted characters, he really seemed solid, and easily identifiable with the cigar in his mouth. Sadly aside from Crutchie, it felt like I really needed a scorecard to figure out the other Newsies. Even so, the footwork they performed was definitely a sight to behold.
The production also combines the film roles of reporter Brian Denton
(Bill Pullman), and Davey’s sister Sarah (Ele Keats), into the character of female reporter, Katherine Plummer (Stephanie Styles). Styles gives Katherine plenty of spunk to make her play well with the newsboys, and she definitely brought out some great moments when cutting down Jack a few times, helping provide some nice humor at times.
The majority of my theater-going experiences have usually been through touring company renditions, but I will say, that Newsies is the first one I’ve seen that deviates quite a bit from the direction of the original cast recordings. Several numbers (like Carrying the Banner) seemed to be taken at a slower pace, and several others seemed to have been re-written. The experience put me in mind of when in middle school we got to play music from Aladdin, but at a slower speed than I was used to.
A bright spot in the revamped showcase, was a song sung by Crutchie in the second act. It definitely helped keep Jack’s best friend at the forefront of the story, given he had been captured and taken away from the main newsboys.
Alan Menken and Jack Feldman’s reprisal of their songwriting duties (from the original film), definitely help improve on several areas. Medda Larkin’s performance numbers are reduced to one, and a rousing chorus sung by a number of Brooklyn newsboys, is a short-yet-sweet tune, with orchestrations that made me feel like I was 20 years younger (Menken’s music has that effect on me). As well, the rousing choral number Seize the Day is expanded out to become one of the performance highlights of the film. The number’s signature ‘paper-dancing’ moment had the theater applauding in approval.
During the break in the loge seating area of The Oriental Theatre, I took some time to talk to some of the patrons around me. I was surprised that many of them were experiencing the stage show for the first time, with a couple mentioning how they were seeing how the stage production broke away from the film release.
I was seated next to a Mother and two sons, and asked just what had brought them their (visiting from Iowa!). The mother explained that when her children were younger, their babysitter had let them watch Newsies, and that was how they had become fans of the film.
What Disney Theatrical has unleashed, is definitely a grand re-imagining of the film, into a stage production that keeps up the music and energy that is enough to excite former, and newer fans. The touring production didn’t wholly blow my socks off, but I still say it is entertaining. If you are able to put down your mental scorecard (if you saw the original film), and let yourself get swept up in the fancy footwork of the cast, you’ll find plenty to still cheer about, from the front row, to the back of the rafters.