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Exuberant cast propels Marriott's entertaining 'Newsies'

★ ★ ★ ½

Minutes after the curtain rose opening night on Marriott Theatre's hugely entertaining "Newsies," concern crossed my mind. First, I worried the Lincolnshire stage might not be large enough to accommodate director/choreographer Alex Sanchez's dynamic choreography and the outsize talent of his excellent cast.

It was large enough. Barely.

Second, I wondered whether Marriott's zestful, young singer/dancers could top themselves after stopping the show in the second number, the rousing "Carrying the Banner."

They did (and how), in one anthemic number after another, until the finale when each of them took a well-earned solo bow.

In several respects, Marriott's timing could not be better. With the holiday season about to commence, the exuberant, family-friendly revival -- inspired by 1899's New York City newsboy strike -- offers theatergoers an alternative to seasonal shows. The production (which runs through Dec. 31) is also unintentionally timely, opening amid announcements of buyouts, layoffs and closings involving Chicago-area media outlets. More bad news, that even a production as good as this can't assuage.

Adapted from the 1992 Disney film, "Newsies" tells the David vs. Goliath story of a ragtag group of young news sellers who confront New York publishing titans in a wage dispute that evolves into a crusade for the rights and protection of child workers.

After it flopped on film, "Newsies" found new life 20 years later in a stage adaptation pairing Jack Feldman's lyrics and Harvey Fierstein's book with Alan Menken's bouncy score, which consists mostly of swinging anthems extolling brotherhood, self-empowerment, courage and social justice. Don't be surprised if you hear audience members humming the infectious "King of New York" or "Seize the Day" as they exit the theater. Don't be surprised when you join them.

The newsies are led by Jack Kelly, played by Patrick Rooney, a terrific singer/actor whose performance could be described as star-making. A glib charmer and budding artist, Jack longs to head west with his best pal Crutchie (the ever-charismatic Matthew Uzarraga), whose bum leg and sweet smile sells "papes." Jack earns extra cash by painting backdrops for his de facto patron, burlesque theater owner and star Medda Larkin (a slyly maternal Stephanie Pope).

Trouble begins when profit-hungry Joseph Pulitzer (the excellent Kevin Gudahl, whose reason and restraint makes his character very real and very dangerous) raises the price of his paper. Other publishers follow, and the newsies revolt. They form a union at the suggestion of Nick Graffagna's thoughtful Davey, a newcomer forced into the paper-selling biz alongside younger brother Les (Carter Graf alternating in the role with Zachary Uzarraga) because of his father's injury. After naming Jack president, the union members call a strike.

Reporting on their efforts is Katherine (Eliza Palasz), an ambitious young journalist eager to move from the society and culture beat to hard news. As romance blooms between her and Jack, the newsies' mission expands from fair wages for news sellers to improved conditions for all child laborers.

The strike prompts a crackdown by Pulitzer, who imposes a news blackout along with his fellow newspaper titans. He also orders his thugs to break up the newsies' rallies and beat up the protesters, including Crutchie, who's arrested and locked up in a squalid "refuge" for poor orphans.

The action unfolds on Kevin Depinet's muscular, smartly designed set dominated by faux steel girders that raise and lower. It's a bold, impressive design.

But what most impresses about this production, aside from its indefatigable cast, is the exuberant choreography by consistently exciting Sanchez. Athletic and kinetic, percussive and balletic, Sanchez's choreography combines elegant pirouettes and graceful leaps that reflect the characters' soaring spirits, with back flips, stomping feet and clenched fists that illustrate their hardscrabble lives. Pope's "That's Rich" even tips its hat to Bob Fosse. It all works. Every step. And that is very good news indeed.