By Bryson David Hoff
The Disney film on which the musical Newsies is based was originally released in 1992, when Disney was simply a large, successful studio, as opposed to 2019, where Disney is fast becoming a Hollywood juggernaut, absorbing lucrative properties and competitors at an alarming pace. As a result, it’s more than a little weird to see a show fictionalizing the New York City Newsboys Strike of 1899 when just last summer the company whose name is above the title on the program was itself fighting a PR battle against its own striking theme park workers. Despite this inherent tension, however, Paramount Theatre’s production does manage to breathe soul into the strange beast that is Disney’s Newsies.
The story centers on Jack Kelly (Alex Prakken), a Manhattan newsboy nearing adulthood who, in typical Disney fashion, yearns for a better life. When New York City’s major newspapers announce a 10 cent hike in the price of newspapers, a cost that is shouldered by the newsies who work as independent agents buying the papers from the printers and then selling them to the general public, he becomes a union leader as all of the paper sellers in the city go on strike. However, as the movement grows in size, Jack finds himself caught between his desire to leave New York to start a new life and his desire to fight for the rights of his fellow workers.
That the production values are spectacular goes without saying. Ever since Paramount started producing professional theatre in-house a few years ago, their sets, costumes, and lighting have been of the highest caliber and this production is no different. The opportunity to realize the gritty side of New York’s Gilded Age is clearly one that scenic designer William Boles and costumer Jordan Ross relish in and the spectacle of their work is undeniable, as is that of choreographer Joshua Blake Carter. Newsies is, first and foremost, a dance musical and the Paramount production definitely does not disappoint with its large, dynamic and athletic ensemble.
For his part, Prakken proves to be a likeable leading man with a pleasant voice and nimble feet. However, what is possibly most surprising is his acting. In a piece that can be so incredibly broad, Prakken finds the right balance of swagger, grit and vulnerability to make Jack an easy character to root for, avoiding the caricature that the flat cap and exaggerated East Coast accent can draw actors into.
However, if Prakken wins the crown for acting, the award for best singing in the production must go to the leading lady, Justine Cameron in the, sadly, underwritten role of Katherine Plumber, a reporter looking to break into hard news after consignment to the entertainment pages who latches onto the newsboys’ strike as a chance to report a story that matters. Cameron, like Prakken, is a formidable triple threat with the unfortunate luck to be playing a role whose motivations are confusing to say the least. This is not her fault at all, but more the fault of the musical’s script which created Katherine by combining two different characters from the original screenplay. That being said, she delivers her dialogue with all of the His Girl Friday punch you could possibly want and, more importantly, her Act I solo “Watch What Happens” is possibly the best vocal performance of the show.
What problems exist in this production are, as you might have surmised, problems that are simply intrinsic to Newsies: The plot takes a while to get going, many characters are underdeveloped, and the happy ending feels somewhat hollow in view of the very real issues of child labor and exploitation of the working class by wealthy that the show brings up.
It seems that Director Jim Corti is well aware of these weaknesses and does his part to deepen the material. One of the most effective of his choices is the decision to write the picket signs the ensemble carries out in a scene towards the end of the play not only in English, but in the languages spoken not only by the poor immigrant children who were most often exploited by the unfair labor practices of the 19th and 20th centuries (German, Hebrew, Italian) as well as those who are still victimized by American greed for low-priced consumer goods today (Spanish, Bengali, Chinese). It’s a subtle touch, but a powerful one that for a moment elevates the material to a higher level of discourse. Maybe not one that the audience wants to go to, but one that makes the singing, dancing, and corporate branding feel a little more meaningful than perhaps it would without it.
All in all, the quality of the performances as well as the work done by the production team make this a worthwhile trip for those audiences with an appetite for the big, splashy Broadway musical. It has everything one could hope for in that area. Those with an appreciation for the art form but for whom the cultural context of a piece of art is important might find themselves in a bit of a trickier spot with the show. Regardless, for both camps the production at Paramount is about as good of a Newsies as you’re likely to get.
The Paramount Theatre in Aurora, IL presents “Newsies” through October 20 at 23 East Galena Boulevard, Aurora. More information and tickets are available here.