No one should go to “Newsies” in search of subtlety. From its David vs. Goliath storyline to its anthemic, foot-stomping musical numbers to its intensely athletic choreography, this musical is written in bold print from top to bottom. And so it should be.
The heroes are clear-cut, the villains even more so, and if a moment of quiet reflection sneaks in, it’s quickly filled by a cartwheeling newsboy (or three). We cheer when the good guys prevail but never quite get too worried when things look tough, because the grittiest thing in this portrayal of poverty and child-labor exploitation is the charcoal on the actors’ faces.
I didn’t see the Broadway version, but found this incarnation to be suitably energetic and convincing, even if the cheerfully formulaic material ultimately fades from memory pretty quickly. Those whose hearts are captured by the struggle of the “newsies”—young, mostly orphan boys peddling newspapers on the street in turn-of-the-century New York City—may even find it inspiring.
And when all 17 of those scrappy kids are gathered in a crowd, or spread around Tobin Ost’s tenement-evoking set of scaffolding and staircases—director Jeff Calhoun makes smart use of his potentially unruly ensemble—and sing about the glories of collective action in the face of oppression, the scene almost suggests a “Les Misérables” for the American urchin set.
The show is a Disney creation based on the Mouse House’s 1992 film, a box office bomb that grew something of a cult following through home viewing. The musical was a hit at Paper Mill Playhouse in 2011 before going direct to Broadway the next year. Our hero is Jack Kelly, a 17-year-old newsie who is the de facto leader of the bunch. He becomes an impromptu union organizer when the evil (as depicted here) newspaper boss Joseph Pulitzer raises the price the kids have to pay to buy stacks of newspapers at wholesale every morning. If that conflict sounds a bit picayune, and the eventual compromise indeed feels more transactional than climactic, in the moment you simply file it all as “greedy adults vs. downtrodden kids,” and it works.
As Jack, Dan DeLuca has a very busy evening. He’s given a bit of a pass with respect to the gymnastic choreography, but is featured in eight songs, not counting all the ensemble rave-ups. DeLuca has plenty of charisma under that newsboy cap, and manages to communicate earnestness without coming off as cloying. His romantic interest in plucky reporter Katherine (Stephanie Styles) is sweet as pie, and when he receives the inevitable buy-out offer from his foes, there’s never much fear that he’ll go all Judas on his comrades. Styles amiably hits all the notes we expect from her very-familiar character. At first she’s defensive, then doubts herself in a man’s world, and ultimately proves her mettle.
Jacob Kemp’s Davy joins Jack and Katherine among the few characters who are permitted to grow through their experiences in this black-and-white clash of character types. Kemp is lovely as a young man whose manner, book-smarts and clear enunciation immediately mark him as an outsider in his crowd. It’s a pleasure to see him go from awkward interloper to reluctant rabble-rouser. Davy’s little brother Les (played at opening by Vincent Crocilla) lands the requisite one-liners and is cute without overdoing it.
Harvey Fierstein’s book (the film was written by Bob Tzudiker and Noni White) spends a surprising amount of verbiage talking up the virtue of unions, and makes more-than-casual note of various forms of labor exploitation. (The leader of the 1899 newsboys' strike on which “Newsies” is based, a child known as Kid Blink, offered a remarkable, colloquial echo of Thomas Paine when he was quoted as saying: “Dis is a time which tries de hearts of men. Dis is de time when we’se got to stick together like glue.”) But though the world of these children is objectively grim, they seem plenty happy subsisting on water and church handouts, and living in the street.
Alan Menken’s music and Jack Feldman’s lyrics are less than memorable, with almost everything rather bland despite its banner-waving exhortations. ("King of New York" and "The World Will Know" are most successful.) And if you don’t get the idea the first time, there’s generally a reprise or two around the corner. Still, maybe this is just the thing for young Disney fans fond of singing their favorite songs over and over.
“Newsies” would be a great choice for a curious child’s first visit to the theater, or young dancers who may thrill at the bits of ballet and tap that keep popping up, to go with plenty of tandem cartwheels and backflips. (The choreography is by Christopher Gattelli.) On opening night at the touring production brought to town by Broadway in Boston, there appeared to be many young couples who maybe fell in love with the film by watching it over and over on DVD after school.
For all the movement that otherwise fills the stage, Styles nearly steals the show with a solo number, “Watch What Happens.” Alone in her office, Katherine struggles to summon her muse and finds confidence in her vulnerability. It’s a human moment, and makes a big impact with small strokes.
If “Newsies” had more of these moments, it would be a richer experience. But as-is, it’s a barnstorming crowd-pleaser. And that seems enough to shout about.
Jeremy D. Goodwin contributes regularly to The Boston Globe, The ARTery (where he is also an editor), Berkshire Magazine and many other publications. See more of his work here. Follow him on Twitter here.