Highly Recommended! The dancers roll faster than the presses in high-spirited ‘Newsies’
Journalistic upheaval. Corporate greed. Labor unionizing. Street protests. Juvenile detention abuses. Political favors.
No, this is not a list of hot topics pulled from recent newspaper headlines. Rather, it is a catalog of the forces at work in “Newsies,” the wonderfully rambunctious, endearing, dance-driven Disney musical that is set on the streets of New York City in 1899 as publishing magnates Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst were confronted by a determined band of teenage newsboys — most of them orphans scraping by on next to nothing — who simply would not settle for being squeezed into greater poverty, and staged what became known as the Newsboys Strike.
I confess to being a total sucker for this show which so blithely combines my love of journalism, dance and New York. But it possesses a magic that goes well beyond such personal matters. The pure magic of “Newsies” — with its exuberant score by composer Alan Menken and lyricist Jack Feldman, and its playfully fervent book by Harvey Fierstein — is that it tells this story with great heart and a spirit of can-do optimism even as it delves into serious issues.
For its in-the-round staging at Marriott Theatre, the ever-ingenious director-choreographer Alex Sanchez and master designer Kevin Depinet have devised countless ways to dance around the shift from the show’s iconic Broadway proscenium-style set (giant steel towers at once perilous and thrilling). Using everything from steel beam benches and heavy wooden tables as the platforms for thrilling, high-flying acrobatic movement, they pull off a neat trick, aided and abetted at every turn by the physical brilliance and aerobic panache of an exemplary cast.
The story: When Pulitzer and Hearst decide to improve their profits by raising the cost of papers sold to the newsboys who hawk them — a hike that could be disastrous to their already bare-bones existence — Jack Kelly (the handsome, graceful, clarion-voiced Patrick Rooney), a rambunctious 17-year-old who also happens to be a gifted artist with dreams of escaping the urban rat race, decides to rally his pals and take action against Pulitzer (Kevin Gudahl). After all, without the newsboys, “the papes” would not get sold at all.
If Kelly is the charismatic ringleader, it is the brainy Davey Jacobs (a winningly assertive Nick Graffagna), who becomes the philosopher behind the movement. He and his younger brother (played by Zachary Uzarraga, an impish boy who easily steals every scene with his perfect diction, knockout delivery, total focus and irrepressible confidence) are the rare newsboys who have parents, although they have become the wage-earners in their family since their father was injured in a work accident.
And then there is the ambitious young journalist Katherine Plumber (Eliza Palasz, who does a fine job with her big number, “Watch What Happens”). As a woman, she is condemned to the society pages, but she yearns for a more momentous beat. And while she and Jack strike up a tense, teasing relationship in their first encounter, Katherine (who has surprising connections that should not be revealed here) sees the potential for a front-page story in his strike plans. There also is an undeniable chemistry between the two.
When the initial strike action ends badly, and Jack’s disabled friend, Crutchie (sweetly played by Zachary’s older brother, Matthew Uzarraga), is badly beaten and confined to the dreadful Refuge, where street kids are warehoused and the city pays big bucks to its overseer, Jack is disheartened and ready to give up. But Katherine and Davey realize the strike must be turned into a larger struggle than one about the newsboys, with all the city’s workers galvanized to fight for their rights.
Serving as a champion and protector of Jack is Medda Larkin (a sophisticated turn by leggy Stephanie Pope), the vaudeville star and theater owner with impressive political connections. Her spicy chorus girls — played by Laura Savage and Adrienne Storrs — double as newsgirls. And just as the strike is a group action, this show is a vivid ensemble effort whose outstanding dancers (who also sing and act up a storm) earn bravos with every sensational number.
As always, there is first-rate musical direction by Ryan T. Nelson, with Patti Garwood conducting the small but mighty orchestra. All in all, this is a musical that, to borrow a song title, gives you “Something to Believe In.”