It’s difficult to fathom in the age of digital media today, but there was once a time when citizens wholly depended upon newspaper coverage to stay current with local and international events. Headlines mattered, and on the strength of those, subsisted the livelihoods of those directly and indirectly involved with the business of the printing press, right down to the selling of “papes” on the street corners of major cities. Disney’s musical, “Newsies,” which wraps up its touring stop at Hollywood’s Pantages Theatre on September 4th, is largely based on the 1899 real-life story of a group of impoverished lost boys who go on strike against Joseph Pulitzer’s “New York World” after the publisher raises the buy-to-sell rate from 50 to 60 cents a bundle.
Though there are differences between the plot in “Newsies” and as the history books tell it, including the fact that the leader of the strike was an eye-patched stalwart by the name of Kid Blink as opposed to Jack Kelly, the stage musical passionately imparts the essence of what transpired over a century ago, punctuating the conflict that pitted boys against a magnate and his cronies with intense urgency.
Leading by example, figuratively and literally, is Joey Barreiro, who brings an undeniable charisma to Jack Kelly. He is fantastic in the way he portrays the headstrong determination of an adolescent who becomes a man by virtue of his indefatigable leadership around which the Newsies look to. Still, even he needs encouragement, and he effectually receives it from Crutchie (heartwarmingly acted by Andy Richardson), Davey (portrayed with moving emotional complexity by Stephen Michael Langton), Medda Larkin (embodied with graceful congeniality by Aisha de Haas) and, at last, influential New York Governor Teddy Roosevelt (positively resurrected by Kevin Carolan). Thus, every chain link forms a sturdy unison that dares to topple the seemingly insurmountable Pulitzer.
Steve Blanchard, who plays the bottom-line-driven Joseph Pulitzer, brings a compelling villainy to the role that is an amalgamation of desk-pounding puerility and upright regality. His voice booms and echoes with ominousness, especially when he makes the unnerving declaration to Kelly that if his newspaper doesn’t print the paperboys’ call to action, then it’s like it never happened. In addition, as we later come to find out, Pulitzer is not only in a publishing quagmire, but a personal one, given that his daughter Katherine is supporting a cause that he is trying to stymie.
Morgan Keene offers a vital sensibility to Katherine, who is driven by literary ambition and the pursuit of justice even if it flies in the face of her powerful father’s wishes. If Kelly is the hero, then Katherine is the saving grace, using her influence and familial connections to use a withered printing press to defy Pulitzer’s coverage ban of the strike. Keene shines radiantly in “Watch What Happens,” when she combines a mastery of melodic words with her resonant mezzo-soprano voice to convey her character’s capacity to effect change with only a typewriter. And, when Katherine inevitably falls in love with Kelly in the musical, we believe it utterly, as we throw aside our cynicism, because of the laudable chemistry between Barreiro and Keene on stage – a bond that becomes the decisive impetus behind the newsboys’ ultimate triumph.
Yet, as gripping as the narrative arc is in “Newsies,” its main attraction might be the incomparable athleticism on display by the ensemble. The world-class array of pirouettes, air splits, gravity-defying back flips, somersaults, tap-dancing, synchronized combinations, and Grand Jeté leaps happen so quickly, and with such a jaw-dropping degree of precision, that one is left breathless at the sight of the deserving sweat that relentlessly condenses on the brows of the performers.
Certainly, while every ensemble member is spectacular, some standouts include Daniel Switzer (Race), who effortlessly maneuvers around on stage; Josh Burrage (JoJo/Darcy), who not only offers some of the most ardent facial expressions, but is also one of the hardest-working actors in the cast; Sky Flaherty (Albert), who is consistently on point, particularly demonstrating suspenseful dramatic tension when his character goes from scab back to renewed advocate; and Jordan Samuels (Specs), who threatens to set a new world record for vertical leaping every time he floats in mid-air, like Michael Jordan in his heyday.
Disney’s “Newsies” (under the direction of Thomas Schumacher) is highly recommended for delivering a cogent mix of memorable acting moments, elite acrobatics, and overall, exhilarating entertainment. The book is by Harvey Fierstein, with music by Alan Menken, and the lyrics by Jack Feldman. The touring production is proficiently directed by Jeff Calhoun with choreography by Christopher Gattelli.
For more information about “Newsies,” the touring musical, visit: newsiesthemusical.com
For more information about the Pantages Theatre, visit hollywoodpantages.com