By Patrick O’Brien
If only the sheer vigor and vim of good old-fashioned musical theater could solve real-world problems. If such were the case, a single evening of Newsies could bring about Utopia. A Disney-sponsored Utopia, granted, but dedicated fans would be more than okay with that, as, I suppose, anyone who swings by the gilded Cadillac Palace for this Gilded Age romp.
As with any other cult movie-turned-musical, a quick history for everyone on the outside: Newsies the 1992 movie was a Disney-produced live-action family musical about New York City’s Newsboy Strike of 1899. And Robert Duvall and Christian Bale were in it, as plutocrat Joseph Pulitzer and (fictional) lead newsie/strike leader Jack Kelly, respectively. To combat a downturn in newspaper sales, Pulitzer raised the wholesale price of a bundle of “papes” on newsies from 50 cents to 60 — literal pennies for Pulitzer, but entire days’ sustenance for the impoverished, often orphaned newsies. The movie was originally intended as a straight drama, but the House of Mouse had an ace: composer Alan Menken — who had scored a double with their Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast, and a triple with Aladdin was just around the corner. Alas, Newsies was not a home run, critically or commercially, another strike in a long line of strikes against live-action musicals. Winning a Razzie for Worst Song didn’t help.
Newsies the stage show, though? From its initial production — mounted just to legitimize the property for licensing — to its Broadway transfer — but just as a limited engagement — it took off full-speed, running over 1,000 performances, and touring extensively. (This is its second stop in Chicago.) Disney clearly knew what they were sitting on, and for that, they have the Fansies, who kept the movie alive on the home video market.
(And don’t underestimate the power of the Fansies; Christian Bale, no great champion of the movie himself, has said, “You say something bad about Newsies and you have an awful lot of people to answer to.”)
So, with such a turnaround in fortune, how does Newsies the stage musical hang together?
It’s Disney, so, clearly and efficiently — very efficiently, perhaps too efficiently at points — and with a heaping helping of panache.
Dance has always been Newsies’ strength, so a clear stage helps for starters. Tobin Ost’s three Erector-Set towers and Sven Ortel’s projections are all we need to conjure up the booming New York City in all its rising glory and Jacob Riis-ian impoverishment. Director Jeff Calhoun provides efficient pacing and makes great use out of the utilitarian possibilities of the set. Now, bring in choreographer Christopher Gattelli. The newsies jump, flip, tap, twirl, play spoons, and go to town on their cursed papes with apparent ease and effortlessness — and keep his justly deserved Tony Award gleaming.
As they do Menken’s first Tony Award. A justly deserved Tony at long last? Put it this way: Newsies may be Menken’s oddest musical, strangely enough, especially considering he’s written musicals based around bloodthirsty botany and Kurt Vonnegut. Hanging an entire musical on an obscure strike is one thing. To go full-throttle pop-anthem anachronistic is another; there’s really only one song grounded in the period — Aisha de Haas’s all-too-short vaudeville turn, “That’s Rich.” It’s odd if only because Menken ain’t no dramaturgical slouch; period styles, he can do. But he embraces the task — providing energy — and he’s his usual tuneful self. “Santa Fe?” “Carrying the Banner?” “King of New York?” “Seize the Day?” Each a home run. And back in ‘92, in his sudden post-Howard Ashman phase, Menken was lucky to nab Jack Feldman as lyricist; his words are crisp and deft, yet appropriately slangy.
Harvey Fierstein’s script is also very much clean, efficient, spirited, and crowd-pleasingly funny and warm. True, some characters disappear for entire acts (like Steve Blanchard’s hissable Pulitzer), while other possibly intriguing characters don’t quite come through (like the aforementioned de Haas, whose theatrical matron Medda Larkin pretty much only exists to foster Jack’s sensitive artistic side). Still others are defined by their signifier (The endearing Andy Richardson’s Crutchie has a crutch.) However, Fierstein’s chief addition, the wannabe reporter Katherine Plummer (Morgan Keene), is a smart one: sympathetic and feisty without being Feisty®. And her song — “Watch What Happens,” a racing, twisting look into the writer’s challenge of getting it exactly right — is a bracingly clever turn for her. And she dances as well as the boys, too.
And now, Jack Kelly. It’s a plum role for any up-and-comer; never mind the acting, the sheer workmanship required to be in this show is a résumé in and of itself. But this tour has its motor in Joey Barreiro. Charismatic, rousing, a powerful and compelling singer — Santa Fe will have to wait, because showfolk should be after him for a long time.
So Newsies is Disney and all that that entails: a neat and tidy yet undeniably robust and agile celebration of the underdog. Seeing it might not actually bring about Utopia, but hearing that change can come from unlikely people does matter. And just by tapping your toes, you’ll feel a kinship to them acrobat kids up there.
Broadway in Chicago presents “Newsies” in a limited engagement through August 7 at the Cadillac Palace Theatre, 151 W Randolph St. A complete performance schedule, more information and tickets ($35-100) are found here.