NEWSIES with Broadway In Chicago, Theatre Review – A Quintessential “Gateway Musical”

 

Upon asking my friend why she wanted to attend the opening press night of Newsies with me, her reply wasn’t that she wanted to see some interesting characters, nor was it that she wanted to hear some wonderful music, nor even to be moved by the David-versus-Goliath story being told. Nope. Instead her revealing reply was, and I quote, “I just want to see these boys dance!” Looking around at the vast amount of young women (and an equal plethora of young gay men) filling the seats at the Ford Oriental Theatre that night I’d venture to say that this a pretty typical reason that would explain why this underdog of a show has done so well for itself.

 

The ensemble of NEWSIES

 

Overly simplistic, brashly formulaic, awkwardly sentimental, inherently unoriginal, full of clichéd stereotypes and with a resolution that drags on much longer than it should, Newsies is by no means an artful, eloquent, or even insightful night of musical theatre. The good “news” though, is that this show doesn’t pretend like it’s anything other than what it is: an energetic, fun, and feel-good night of theatre (this is a Disney production after all). There’s nothing wrong with that as long as it’s done well.

 

Winner of the 2012 Tony Award for best choreography, Newsies is all about the big ensemble dance numbers, which means this show will most certainly enjoy a long and prosperous afterlife in many high school auditoriums across the country once the rights are released, especially if it’s an all-boys school.

 

Choreographed by Christopher Gatteli, there’s an impressive array of every standard Broadway-by-the-numbers trick you can imagine: acrobatic jumps, cartwheels, gymnastic backflips, split leaps, tuck-rolls, hand-stands, barrel-turns, stomps, fist pumps, rhythm tap, fouettes, and enough pirouette turns to make the Joffrey Ballet look tame by comparison.

 

Other than a small sequence where the boys dance around on pieces of torn newspapers, the rest of the choreography isn’t particularly innovative. But what makes these dances so darn exciting is that these guys execute them with outstanding stamina and a remarkable raw fierceness. It’s their energy that gives the choreography here a vitality which is impressive to watch. Perhaps one of the best things about watching all of these high spirited dances is that the moment these boys start twirling around on stage we suddenly forget all about this show’s many imperfections and just enjoy Newsies for the good old fashioned Disney show it is.

 

The ensemble of NEWSIES

 

Now, I’m not saying that there isn’t an important story being told here or that the choreography serves no purpose. It’s just that the spectacle of skillful gymnastics being thrown at us with such a high energy pace throughout the night is actually obscuring the story at times. But under the sweaty exertion of these rousing dance numbers there actually is an important tale being told, and one that should resonate well with today’s “headlines” about economic disparity and the staggering income gap between rich and poor.

 

At its core Newsies tells the story of Jack Kelly (Dan DeLuca), a rebellious and charismatic newsboy who dreams of a better life away from the streets out in good ‘ole romantic Santa Fe, New Mexico. Along with Jack is his ragtag band of ragamuffin newspaper peddling homeless orphans known as together as “newsies”. These loveable (and weirdly hyper-acrobatic) group of street urchins include a crippled boy who literally goes by the name of “Crutchie” (Zachary Sayle) and the nerdy good-natured newcomer Davey (Jacob Kemp) along with his adorable younger brother Les (Vincent Crocilla who alternates performances with Anthony Rosenthal).

 

When the publishing media giant Joseph Pulitzer (Steve Blanchard) abruptly raises prices at the newsboy’s expense Jack rallies his fellow newsies from across the entire city to take action by printing their own paper and striking for what’s right. These underdog misfits stand up to the greedy corporate powers head-on (which itself is pretty ironic for a show produced by the mega corporation Disney). Violent repercussions follow and after a series of bad publicity, including the involvement of Governor Theodore Roosevelt himself, Pulitzer is forced to make a deal with Jack to end the strike.

 

The Newsies go on strike

 

The musical is loosely inspired by the actual NYC newsboy strike of 1899 and based on the 1992 movie-musical, which starred a young Christian Bale as our lead hero Jack Kelly (Bale himself considers Newsies  to be the worst film of his entire career). The movie was a major box-office failure. It was neither able to attract an audience nor win any critical acclaim and it bombed with a devastating financial loss for Disney.

 

But just like most major flops Newsies instead lived on with an avid cult-following. This time it mostly caught on through home video rentals and through repeats on the Disney channel. Additionally the music in Newsies is brimming with many catchy, tuneful, harmonic, and rousing family-friendly songs that spread like wildfire through many school choir groups throughout the years - Just check out the vast amount of them on YouTube if you don’t believe me.

 

Due in large part to these new viewers Newsies gained such a feverishly devoted large fan base over the past two decades that the producers at Disney Productions suddenly saw big dollar signs on the horizon and they finally gave the go-ahead to retool the movie for the stage. The show ran for over 1,005 performances on Broadway and wildly exceeded their expectations.

 

This stage adaptation includes some new book material provided by playwright Harvey Fierstein. It’s more or less the same story from the movie except with one major difference. In the stage version Jack Kelly’s brief love interest from the film Sarah Jacobs (who was also Les and Davey’s sister in the movie) is omitted, as is Bill Pullman’s random 40 year old news reporter Brian Denton. Instead Mr. Fierstein combined the two characters into one person: Katherine Plumber (Stephanie Styles). She’s a feisty young journalist covering the strike who also happens to double as Jack’s budding love interest. She also has a secret which doesn’t get revealed until later in the show.

 

Jack Kelly & Katherine (Dan DeLuca & Stephanie Styles)

 

Aside from the addition of Katherine there are also a handful of new songs contributed by the same musical team from the movie. Alan Menken’s score is pure early 1990s sound-a-like Disney-pop. The soaring anthemic music suits the story, but definitely not the time period… I mean pop music for a show set in 1899? Come on. Even a small hint of ragtime would have been nice. Still, the music is infectious and Jack Feldman’s lyrics are spot-on perfect, particularly the terrific wordplay patter that he throws into one of the new numbers, “Watch What Happens” a song sung by Katherine about writer’s block and finding the perfect headline (I think all journalists can relate).

 

Most of the new musical numbers actually fit really nicely into the overall frame of the story. Yet it’s the songs from the movie version that still remain the real heartbeat of this show (though many of these songs now have completely altered lyrics). Nearly every song in Newsies is like a banner headline in and of itself with titles such as, “Seize the Day”, “Carrying the Banner”, “The World Will Know”, “King of New York”, and “Once and For All”.

 

These generic pop-anthems pretty much all convey the exact same messages and to be honest there really aren’t enough differences to distinguish them apart from each other. On the other hand though, these songs are extremely melodic, fun to listen to, full of vigor, and best of all the collective singing by this large ensemble is so powerful at times that we can’t help but get stirred up along with them.

 

The ensemble of NEWSIES

 

Newsies is what I’d like to call a quintessential “gateway musical”. By that I mean it’s pleasant and simplistic enough to easily appeal to young people. These youngsters will come in droves to the theatre to see it, as they did on opening night. Many of them are probably seeing professional theatre for the first time in their lives and if they enjoy this show then they’ll probably be up for exploring other works of theatre, which will then hopefully open up a whole new generation of live theatre for them. As for the slightly older fans (such as myself) who grew up watching Newsies as a kid, there’s also a wonderful sense of nostalgia in getting to experience such a beloved movie from my youth live on stage.

 

Being somewhat of a Newsies fan myself I was able to see this show when it was playing on Broadway back in 2012. And while it’s mostly the same stage production that I remember seeing two years ago the biggest difference I had to take note of between the New York cast and this touring one is that the all-too essential dangerous conflict between the scrappy underdog newsies and the greedy corporate powers appears to have completely evaporated on the road. There’s no sense of looming danger in this touring production. And though the dance numbers are engaging, the rest of the story seems to drag a bit more without having a genuine conflict to keep our attention.

 

Sadly, the reason for this lack of peril appears all too obviously to be due to Steve Blanchard’s cartoonish take on the role of Joseph Pulitzer. On Broadway the actor playing Pulitzer felt like a real threat, but whom we could still sympathize with despite the stereotyped way he’s written. In this touring production Mr. Blanchard is making Pulitzer so over-the-top evil that you half expect him to break out into a maniacal “mwah-ha-ha” laugh at any moment while he dances around a fire with a pitchfork in hand. I’m not kidding.  Mr. Blanchard’s portrayal feels so contrived that it’s hard to take his character seriously as a realistic antagonist. As a consequence the stakes barely go above lukewarm for this entire production.

 

Jack Kelly (Dan DeLuca)

 

Aside from Mr. Blanchard’s “animated” performance the rest of the leads in this talented cast are excellent. Dan DeLuca makes a very likeable and soft-hearted Jack Kelly. This gifted actor proves he can carry his own, even without the cartwheels or pirouettes. DeLuca’s vocals are gorgeous and every song of his is filled to the brim with strong emotional intentions. There’s also a sweet innocent vulnerability to Mr. DeLuca’s Jack that is interesting to watch, especially when he’s trying to appear as a tough “bad boy” leader of the newsboys.

 

As Jack’s love interest Katherine, Stephanie Styles is at her best when she’s playing her character’s more comedic moments. She’s far less convincing when she has to build genuine romantic chemistry with Mr. DeLuca’s Jack. There’s also a big problem with period-specific traits that Ms. Styles seems to be struggling to comprehend. Although Ms. Styles is making some interesting choices, she’s too quirky, too spunky, too overly defiant, and thus ultimately way too modern for the typical behavior of a young woman in the 19th century. It almost seems that she’s been transported via a time machine into this story from a different era altogether.

 

By far the most surprising standout performance in this cast comes from Angela Grovey, an absolutely phenomenal actress who has graced the Chicago area stages many times in the past. As the burlesque club owner/performer Meda Larkin, Ms. Grovey gives a spine-tingling rendition of her song “That’s Rich” which she belts out to absolute perfection.

 

As for the newsies themselves, I realize most of these guys were cast for their dance and singing abilities first and foremost, but their acting skills need work. They’re obviously talented, but everything these young men do on stage feels too choreographed. And I do mean everything. In the short book scenes their one-liners fall out with awkward delivery as if they’ve been planned ahead and done on cue. Many of them even have their own hand gestures to go along with their lines.

 

And although their dancing is thrilling, their fight sequences by J. Allen Suddeth are so overtly staged that it’s just hard to watch. This touring production has by far some of the worst fight choreography I’ve ever seen. It’s never a good sign when the audience is laughing watching these kids get “beat up” rather than being horrified by it all. 

 

The ensemble of NEWSIES

 

That said, for a good majority of the audience none of these problems matter all that much. And judging by the squeals of approval from the girls in the back rows of the house on opening night I doubt they really care at all. They’re here to see some attractive guys execute some high-intensity choreography, and to that effect these boys deliver on that promise whole heartedly. Once they start dancing the sheer infectious energy in this show suddenly pulsates through the roof and Newsies comes alive out of nowhere with a storming ferocity… only to disappear quickly once these dance numbers are over and the plot has to advance forward.

 

Fortunately these stimulating dance numbers aren’t just mere spectacles though. Other than the random balletic twirls just before the curtain call many of the remaining dances actually serve a greater purpose. They emphasize the stubborn perseverance inherent in the show’s plot: that these ragamuffin kids who have felt alone their whole lives suddenly discover that they can find strength and courage in uniting as one. It’s interesting to note that the choreography for the opening group number “Carrying the Banner” starts out in slightly fragmented and disconnected movements by the various newsboys before slowly becoming more consolidated and sharper as the show progresses.

 

Jeff Goldstein’s costumes are one of the few details in this show that actually conjures up images of the late 19th century. Still, the newsies themselves look a little too clean-cut. These boys are homeless street urchins and their costumes should’ve reflected that reality more by having ripped holes in their clothes, tears in their hats, and maybe even some dirt thrown on them.

 

Tobin Ost’s multi-tiered rolling set consisting of staircases and scaffolds is powerful and seems to fit very nicely on the large downtown stage. At times the set evokes the tenement feel of a crowded Manhattan street, but other times, especially when it’s combined with modern screen projections, it feels too flashy like something straight out of RENT or Next to Normal.

 

The Newsies form a union

 

Finally, there has been some debate recently in Chicago involving a great deal of non-union tours booking houses through Broadway In Chicago. Actors Equity, the union for stage actors, has started a campaign to educate audiences about the differences. Newsies thankfully is an equity tour. I say thankfully not because that means the quality of the cast is better, but because this show in particular should never be performed by a non-equity touring cast.

 

There are so many high risk gymnastics involved in the choreography that physical injuries have a greater chance of occurring (and thus having AEA sponsored health insurance is a huge bonus for these young cast members). But the biggest reason is that watching a bunch of performers sing about the importance of joining a union and striking for those rights would make this entire show feel like a gigantic satire with a non-union cast. Hopefully that will never be the case with Newsies.

 

Bottom Line: Newsies is recommended. In general, most people will come out of Newsies feeling wowed by the raw intensity of the dancing, but I highly doubt anyone will be wowed or even remotely moved by the story or any of its characters. There are also some major cracks in this touring production, particularly the utter lack of any real sense of danger. But with Newsies none of these problems matter to the devoted fans of this show. Even I have to admit that this underdog of a show holds a special place in my own heart. I saw the movie as a young kid myself and it lead me to take an interest in theatre for the first time in my life. Such is the fantastic appeal of this “gateway musical” type of show. It may not be high art, it may not be sophisticated, but it’s certainly entertaining and well worth checking out.

 

NEWSIES – Broadway In Chicago

Running Time: 2 Hours and 30 minutes, there is a 15 minute intermission

Location: Ford Oriental Theatre, 24 W. Randolph St., Chicago IL 60601

Runs through: January 4, 2015

Curtain Times: Due to the holiday season the show times vary considerably. For the complete performance schedule, please visit the Broadway In Chicago website.

Tickets and Reservations: $40.00 - $130.00. Tickets are available at all Broadway In Chicago Box Offices including 24 W. Randolph St., 151 W. Randolph St., 18 W. Monroe St. and 175 E. Chestnut. Tickets can also be purchased by calling the Broadway In Chicago Ticket Line at (800) 775-2000. They can also be purchased at all Ticketmaster retail locations. As well as online (see link above).

Group and Discounted Tickets: A select number of premium seats are also available for many performances.  Tickets for groups of 10 or more can be reserved by calling Broadway In Chicago Group Sales at (312) 977-1710

Please Note: Ticket buyers are reminded that Broadway In Chicago Box Offices and Ticketmaster are the only official retail ticket outlets for all performances of NEWSIES at the Oriental Theatre. Ticket buyers who purchase tickets from a ticket broker or any third party should be aware that Broadway In Chicago is unable to reprint or replace lost or stolen tickets and is unable to contact patrons with information regarding time changes or other pertinent updates regarding the performance.

 

Music by Alan Menken, Lyrics by Jack Feldman, Book by Harvey Fierstein, Based on the Disney musical film written by Bob Tzudiker and Noni White

Directed by Jeff Calhoun, Music Direction by James Dodgson, Choreography by Christopher Gattelli, Scenic Design by Tobin Ost, Costume Design by Jeff Goldstein, Lighting Design by Jeff Croiter, Sound Design by Ken Travis, Projection Design by Sven Ortel, Projection Adaptation by Daniel Brodie, Hair & Wig Design by Charles G. LaPointe, Fight Direction by J. Allen Suddeth, Production Stage Management by Jeff Norman, Associate Choreography by Lou Castro, Orchestrations by Danny Troob, Music Supervision and Arrangement by Michael Kosarin

Cast: Dan DeLuca, Steve Blanchard, Stephanie Styles, Angela Grovey, Jacob Kemp, Zachary Sayle, Vincent Crocilla, Anthony Rosenthal, Mark Aldrich, Josh Assor, Evan Autio, Bill Bateman, Josh E. Brady, Josh Burrage, Kevin Carolan, DeMarius Copes, Benjamin Cook, Julian DeGuzman, Nico DeJesus, Sky Flaherty, Jon Hacker, Jeff Heimbrock, Stephen Hernandez, James Judy, Meredith Inglesby, Eric Jon Mahlum, Ginna Claire Mason, Michael Ryan, Jordan Samuels, Jack Sippel, Melissa Steadman Hart, Andrew Wilson, and Chad Wolcott.

 

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