I am a child of the ‘90s and an avid fan of musical theater, so saying that I liked “Newsies” as a kid is probably redundant. While the Disney live-action musical, released in 1992, tanked on both the commercial and critical fronts (Roger Ebert called it “the very definition of underwhelming”) it found near cult status due to thousands of future theater nerds watching and re-watching the film in the days when you actually had to leave your couch to rent a movie. Imagine that.
Now I am 25, Blockbuster is a thing of the past and “Newsies” is alive again through a Broadway show (that ran for two years but since closed) and a national tour. I never caught the show in its New York run, but during the national tour’s stop at The Bushnell Theater in Hartford, I finally had a chance to relive one of my childhood’s strongest musical memories.
And, on the nostalgia front, it didn’t disappoint. Over a decade had passed since I last heard the music of “Newsies,” yet I was amazed how much of it was still vivid in my mind. My theatergoing friend and I kept looking at each other with knowing smiles with each familiar song and quizzical looks every time a plot point or lyric (!) was changed.
The basic concept of “Newsies” is untouched – a group of ragtag newsboys at the dawn of the 20th century decide to go on strike to protest newspaper mogul Joseph Pulitzer hiking up the price of their beloved papes. Leading the pack is 17-year-old Jack Kelly, an orphan who longs to leave the dirty streets of New Yawk (everything in “Newsies” is pronounced in a thick, cartoony Brooklyn accent, of cawse) and move to Santa Fe. Why two New York set musicals have characters dreaming of Santa Fe in song, by the way, is beyond me. In the stage adaptation, we also have Katherine, a plucky reporter and love interest for Jack who replaces a male reporter and female beau from the film.
But let’s be honest, no one will be drawn to “Newsies” for the story. While it is supposedly based on true events (even then-governor Teddy Roosevelt makes an ex-machina appearance!), the story of “Newsies” is bland and newsprint thin. The course of the newsboys’ strike can be seen a mile away and, on a whole, the characters are one-note caricatures. While Jack (played here by Joey Barreiro, who only joined the tour at the Hartford stop) is vaguely charismatic and matinee-idol bland, he is at least he is given some glimmers of multidimensionality by book writer Harvey Fierstein. The supporting cast, populated by living tropes like Romeo (a sleazy romantic type), Crutchie (a spunky cripple), Weasel (a smarmy boss) and Meda (a big-bosomed cabaret singer with a heart of gold), don’t fair as well. Interestingly, it is the story’s new character, the writer Katherine (the golden-voiced Morgan Keene, also new to the tour), who gets the most personality. A gifted journalist whose only handicap was being born a female, Katherine gets the show’s best new number, a catchy and intricately worded patter song called “Watch What Happens.”
It’s really the music that makes “Newsies” come alive. While it’s not Alan Menken’s best work, the score (accompanied by Jack Feldman’s lyrics) is energetic and catchy in all the right ways. It’s clear why songs like “King of New York” and “Seize The Day” have stayed in the minds of so many twentysomethings. In fact, except for “Something To Believe In,” a schmaltzy love ballad that feels like the rejected first version of “A Whole New World, “the score is uniformly strong. The music, and the many corresponding dance numbers, are easily the best part of “Newsies” and well worth the price of admission alone.
Speaking of the dancing. The large and multitalented cast spends loads of time spinning and tumbling and running all over the three-story, metal scaffolding that makes up most of the utilitarian-yet-handsome set – helped greatly, too, by some beautifully rendered projections. My quads hurt just watching the cast at work. The high-energy choreography wowed in just about every number, even if it didn’t always feel as uniform as it should have. Some boys kicked higher than others, some turned a split second too late. But perhaps that’s direction rather than messiness – these are streetwise ragamuffins not members of the Joffrey Ballet.
Rereading the last few paragraphs, it seems like I disliked “Newsies” which isn’t at all true. I was fully entertained for all of its two-and-a-half-hour running time and it wasn’t all due to nostalgia. There’s real heart to this show and a wonderfully fun freewheeling charm that was infectious from the get-go. This is a show that’s much better to experience than to think about, appreciate than pick apart. When you let go of dramaturgy, you can’t help but seize the day and enjoy.