'Newsies' at the Marriott Theatre
Lincolnshire–A touring production of the Disney musical “Newsies” played in Chicago’s Loop last year and I thought it was a pretty good show, a welcome Disney upgrading into serious musical territory, away from the standard Disney diet of talking animals, magical spirits, and beautiful princesses being rescued from enchantment by handsome young princes.
The Marriott stage is filled with grubby boys battling greedy business magnates in New York City at the turn of the last century. The critical issue was how many pennies the boys (the Newsies of the title) can keep as wages by selling city newspapers on the city streets. The musical is based on a 1992 motion picture that was a box office dud, though the film did acquire some cult following. The Disney organization didn’t expect much from the show when it opened on Broadway in 2012, but “Newsies” ran for 2½ years. If the Broadway production was as vibrant and stirring as the Marriott revival, it might still be running in the Big Apple.
“Newsies” is set in New York City in 1899. The boy sellers come into conflict with nasty newspaper publishers who want to reduce the already starvation wages the youngsters scratch out so the big bosses can add a few dollars to their bottom line. The Newsies rebel and go on strike, a gutsy move by a collection of unorganized and uneducated lads doing battle with the city’s power structure at a time when labor unions were struggling for a toe hold in American society.
Alan Menken (music), Jack Feldman (lyrics), and Harvey Fierstein (book) are following a well-worn tradition of musicals about poor but plucky children that include “Annie” and “Oliver.” Playgoers familiar with the American proletarian theater of the 1930’s might add “Waiting for Lefty” for its pro labor/anti management message. And there are strong whiffs of the musical adaptation of “Les Miserables” in the rousing songs and intricate staging.
What caught the eye of New York reviewers and audiences in 2012 is the sensational dancing. The show probably could have won praise even without the brilliant choreography, just concentrating to the audience-involving story. Instead, “Newsies” the show features some of the most creative and exhilarating dancing seen in the American musical theater in the new millennium. On Broadway the choreographer was Christopher Gattelli. At Marriott, it’s Alex Sanchez. Gattelli’s dances were outstanding, but I give higher marks to Sanchez, who not only designed the superb dances but also directs the show.
Sanchez has gathered an extraordinary group of young dancer-singer-actors. He has made a virtue of necessity by brilliantly orchestrating the dances to fit the intimate Marriott in-the-round playing area. Nearly all the dances are performed by the large ensemble (there are more than two dozen people in the cast). There are no dreamy Fred and Ginger dance duets. The choreography presents a series of ensemble numbers, executed with a precision, exuberance, and athleticism that set the opening night spectators roaring. Sanchez does a masterful job of organizing a complex production that often has dozens of people in motion on stage at the same time, yet keeping the action coherent even at its most fast-paced. The scene changes are especially smooth in execution.
The heart of the “Newsies” is Jack Kelly, the leader of the striking boys, played by Patrick Rooney with an irresistible combination of soaring singing voice, acting skill, and charisma. Rooney’s performance starts out portraying a young man aching to leave the poverty of New York City for a magical West of his imagination (“Santa Fe”). Rooney’s Kelly grows from a discontented dreamer into a leader of the Newsies. The audience and the characters alike rejoice at the end of the show at his triumph over the evil businessmen, represented by real-life publisher Joseph Pulitzer, who takes a real shellacking as a cruel rich man of Dickensian proportions, though publisher William Randolph Heart was at least as cruel an employer and might have made a more colorful bad guy.
Kelly is surrounded by an exemplary chorus performing with unlimited energy and stamina, obviously having a great time, recognizing they are in a show that is something special. The ensemble is not only eye-popping in its talent, they authentically look like grungy boys of the period. It is more than political correctness to cite Adrienne Storrs, Tiffany Tatreau, and Laura Savage–three young ladies who help power the production numbers with as much verve and gymnastic flair as their male colleagues.
The front line performers are led by Eliza Palasz, a strong voiced young actress who plays a spunky young newspaper reporter who falls in with the striking Newsies, establishes a love interest with Jack. She also provides an unexpected cx character revelation late in the show that would require a spoiler alert. Kevin Gudahl, unrecognizable in a curly wig and full beard, is great as the dastardly Joseph, who makes no apologies for his villainy.
Stephanie Pope makes an audience-pleasing cameo as Medda Larkin, a vaudeville queen with a wisecracking sense of humor and a belting voice. James Rank scores as Theodore Roosevelt, then the governor of New York, who turns out to be one of the few good guys among the adults.
The scene-stealer of the evening is Matthew Uzarraga, who plays Crutchie, a small crippled newsboy of large voice and larger heart. Uzarraga’s chief competitor is Carter Graf, a sixth grader who plays the youngest and sassiest of the Newsies. Graf made serious inroads into my resistance to precocious heart-tugging child characters on the stage. All the Newsies deserve commendation and I’ll nominate Nick Graffagna as first among equals for his three-dimensional performance as a boy who is unfairly thrust into the role of wage earner for his family.
Kevin Depinet has designed a bi-level set dominated by three giant girders raised and lowered throughout the performance. Depinet mostly leaves the stage open for the massed dancing, a terrific exception being the chorus stomping away in unison on a bunch of wooded tabletops. Jesse Klug designed the lighting, Robert Gilmartin the sound, and Sally Weiss the properties. The Newsies talk with credible New York accents that speak well for the tutelage of dialect coach Jill Walmsley Zager. The “Newsies” score includes plenty of powerful rhythmic music to support the dancers and as usual, the Marriott small band has come up big under the direction of Patti Garwood, who makes eight musicians sound like a full Broadway pit orchestra.
The happy ending of “Newsies” is a bit pat and the momentum of the second act is slowed by the injection of the Jack Kelly-Katherine love story, but these are trivialities in an evening that soars with great dancing and a story that is an engrossing lesson in American labor and social history. This production stands among the gold star presentations in the luminous Marriott history and a credit to the Disney Company for attempting a project with some real theatrical and dramatic meat on its bones.