Start the Presses!
Imagine the Hardy Boys times ten or Nancy Drew’s crew times five and you’re still not close to Newsies, perpetual motion in a blast from the past. Never before witnessed “in the round,” the Tony-winning screen-to-stage sensation is currently rampaging through 2017 at Lincolnshire’s Marriott Theatre.
Its unstoppable energy is both barely and fully harnessed by director/choreographer Alex Sanchez and a ripe young troupe of leaping lads and galloping gals. With no proscenium to direct the flows of action, Marriott’s arena mounting spreads the dynamic dancing centripetally, with little energy lost even to the last row.
Like the 1992 film, the erupting events chronicle—and celebrate—N.Y.C.’s improbable “Newsboy Strike,” a rag-tag rebellion that lasted for two weeks in the summer of 1899. That impromptu, grassroots labor insurrection united the young tabloid vendors of six boroughs against unscrupulous capitalist bosses Joseph Pulitzer, William Randolph Hearst and other purveyors of graft and bribery.
A hard-boiled, tough-loving creation by composer Alan Menken, bookwriter Harvey Fierstein and lyricist Jack Feldman, the strike provides the perfect excuse for troubled-teen-turned-rabble-rouser Jack Kelly (handsome Patrick Rooney), a homeless 17-year-old dreaming of escape to Santa Fe, to tear up the stage, helped by an ensemble so game for Gotham glory it almost hurts to watch.
What spurs the kids to industrial agitation is a devastating distribution increase of ten cents for the 100-“pape” bundles they must purchase in advance and sell–without any compensation for capricious demand and unbought supply. Fighting the very exploitation and corruption that kept their parents poor, these plucky exemplars of Horatio Alger or “Our Gang” reinvent social justice as they refuse to settle for submission.
In his seemingly doomed struggle against selfish and greedy adults–plutocratic publisher Pulitzer (Kevin Gudahl) and reform-school nasty (Bill Bannon)–Jack and his newsboy army find unlikely support from idealistic cub-reporter Katherine (Eliza Palasz), who has a direct link to the powers that be, as well as music-hall headliner Medda Larkin (Stephanie Pope, raising the roof with “That’s Rich”) and her Bowery Beauties. As their “children’s crusade” gathers muck-raking steam (its fliers secretly printed on Pulitzer’s own presses), even progressive N.Y. Governor Teddy Roosevelt (James Rank) discards “The Bottom Line” and joins the cause.
Anyway, this youth-drenched tale (“Old people talk too much,” one kid opines) gives center stage to the incredible hoofing of Marriott’s inexhaustible pyro tyros. Their pile-driving, high-stepping breakouts explode in such incandescent rousers as “Carrying the Banner,” “Seize the Day,” and “King of New York.” If youth were a drug, the whole stage would be a crack house. And, if justice required somersaults, back flips, breathtaking arabesques and Olympic leaps, the newsies’ strike would have ended in two days, not two weeks. But, ultimately, it’s words, not moves, that count in a cause. (Alas, Fierstein’s anything-for-a-laugh script really bottom-feeds when a salacious Medda asks Teddy Roosevelt about his “big stick.” Plus nobody talked about being part of a “food chain” in 1899.)
There’s even an unashamedly sentimental subplot involving disabled tot Crutchie (plaintive Matthew Uzarraga) whose suffering at The Refuge for runaways and throwaways awakens its own reform movement as Jack and Katherine discover “Something To Believe In.” Nick Graffagana and Carter Graff (alternating with Zachary Uzarraga) are terrific as bumptious brothers who provide Jack with the sudden warmth of home.
In place of the fire-escape scaffolding that enclosed the 2014 Broadway touring production, Kevin Depinet’s designs rely on giant girders that lower to become beds for the boys and much more. Sally Dolembo’s class-conscious costumes, electrified by Jesse Klug’s lighting, can barely contain the passions and paces of 29 vibrant performers, giving their all to create the most.
No question, Newsies’ feel-good showbiz savvy is well-earned: Sheer kinetic energy can more than pass for eloquence when packaged this propulsively. Jack, the unelected king of New York, may never get to Santa Fe but our time trip to a merry Manhattan is happiness on all cylinders.