EXTRA! EXTRA! Disney's NEWSIES Dance Numbers Salvage Drab Production!

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NEWSIES plays at the Fox Theatre Jan 19-31.

Disney is known in the theatre world for elaborate and grandiose productions like THE LION KING and BEAUTY AND THE BEAST. Those shows feature exciting sets, memorable songs, exciting costumes and touching stories. Perhaps that’s why I was disappointed with Disney’s NEWSIES, based on the 1992 film which in turn was inspired from David Nasaw’s book CHILDREN OF THE CITY. No matter the medium, the story is an interesting piece of actual history that just didn’t translate into a must-see show. It will play well enough at the Fabulous Fox, where St. Louis’ own Alex Prakken will grace the venerable stage as Oscar Delancey, one of tightwad newspaper magnate Joseph Pulitzer’s heavies. Pulitzer founded the New York World and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, but the show arrives just a little too late for Pulitzer to be a major villain in St. Louis—you can blame Enos S. Kroenke for that.

For those who may not already know the plot, “Newsies” is a colloquialism for “Newspaper Boys,” that anachronistic young man’s occupation of hawking newspapers. The Newsies would by a stack of papers from the publisher, and then sell them at a slight markup to turn a profit. The more you sold, the more you made. Today’s equivalent is the beer vendor at the ballpark. Way back in 1899, Pulitzer increased the cost of the papers to the Newsies, and the Newsies fought back by going on strike. Of course, you can’t really strike if you’re not a union, but since when has some silly little detail like that ever stopped the earnest efforts of unified youths? Eventually Pulitzer gave in and settled the situation with Kid Blink, recast in Disney’s NEWSIES universe as Jack Kelly, the leader of the Newsies, and everyone prospered to some degree or another. Now, consider the menace of the Beast, the pluck of Beauty, the majesty of Mustafa, the rise of Simba, and then consider a motley bunch of street urchins hawking newspapers in an era where most people get their news from the Wi-Fi connected cell phones. I’m usually a hopeless romantic, but young men organizing a labor union simply isn’t all that interesting as far as musical theatre goes. Sadly, the tacked on romantic subplot between Jack Kelly and Katherine, a character invented to give the otherwise male-dominant story at least one decent female role never feels fully fleshed out either. If Katherine’s shift from eager reporter to Jack’s love interest was obvious I must have somehow missed it entirely. I expected a more cohesive and sweeping tale from a Disney production.  

That leads me to my next disappointment—the music of the entire first act seemed awfully repetitive. “Oh we’re young men with moxie and our boss is a tyrant, so we’re gonna take a stand! Go tell Brooklyn and the Bronx and Queens that we’re saying ‘NO!’ to The Man!” I tried that once myself, around 1992, and it didn’t get very far. All of the songs seemed to be rah-rah anthems that weren’t particularly memorable. “Santa Fe” was okay, and Act II’s “King of New York” was excellent, but the rest of the songs didn’t stick with me at all. I found myself singing songs from WICKED! on the drive home, so clearly the Jack Feldman lyrics didn’t register. Joey Barreiro, as Jack Kelly, sang the songs well enough, but they’re often exceedingly wordy. He delivers them with a hard New York accent that never recedes into the song, which I guess is probably the point but the Donald Trump campaign has already made the New York accent something more wearisome than entertaining. Morgan Keene as Katherine was neither particularly wonderful nor terrible, but a Disney show should really ring with triumphant vocals. Many of the songs are sung by multiple Newsies, simultaneously or singularly, but no one really stood out to me vocally. The stage often seems a bit overcrowded, and keeping track of such a large cast of named parts becomes a distraction.  Steve Blanchard does a nice job portraying Pulitzer as a heartless taskmaster, and even took a surprisingly active role in doling out violent retribution against the rebellious kids. Beating handicapped Newsie “Crutchie” (Zachary Sayle) with his own crutch seems decidedly “un-Disney,” but Mr. Blanchard leaves little room for ambiguous characterization in his version of Pulitzer—he’s thoroughly ruthless.

It’s not all gloom. If you enjoy dance in your stage musicals the choreography is excellent. The Newsies are an acrobatic troupe, spinning, flipping, and dancing their way across the stage and up and down Tobin Ost’s mammoth set pieces. While not as fantastic as the Beast’s Castle, the three-story stairwells of steel girders are quite effective in evoking the dawn of the Industrial Revolution setting of turn-of-the-century New York. The tap routines are very fun and incorporate a nod to performance art shows like STOMP. Frankly, if there were less verbose songs and more tap dance numbers, I think I would have enjoyed it a great deal more.  The highlight of the acting was, for me, John Michael Pitera, playing Les, the youngest Newsie. He gets most of the best lines in the show and often steals the scenes he’s in. He splits time on the run with young Mr. Ethan Steiner, who I’d imagine is similarly entertaining.

Dance fans will find a lot to love with NEWSIES, and in this market, the Pulitzer connection and Alex Prakken’s homecoming should draw well. Alex is the understudy for Jack, so I would be surprised if he doesn’t get to take at least one turn in the lead role while the show is in town. If you’re looking for grand spectacle and memorable music you may be disappointed. Considering the rather violent beat down of Crutchie by Pulitzer, I would caution those who automatically equate “Disney” with “appropriate for all ages” to think twice. There are no pretty princesses here and the costumes are accurately drab--your young ones may be bored. Older kids who have seen the film and audiences of my generation and older, who actually remember kids selling newspapers, will appreciate the nostalgia more than younger patrons.

Disney’s NEWSIES plays the Fox Theatre from January 19 – 31. Visit www.FabulousFox.com for ticket information or www.newsiesthemusical.com for more on the production itself.  

2.5 / 5.0