Believe it or not, times used to be harder for those with a career in the journalism industry.
No clear victor has emerged in this war between modern journalists and their cantankerous subjects who cry “Fake news!” in the face of all negative press. Unless you consider late night TV talk shows who need look no further than current headlines to find material for a week’s worth of broadcasts.
There’s a similar battle brewing that pits those who write the news against those who make it at the Benedum Center in Disney’s Newsies presented by Pittsburgh CLO.
Fortunately, the titular characters of this show—a ragtag group of poor young men selling newspapers on the streets of New York City—are aided in telling their underdog story (based on the actual Newsboys strike of 1899) by toe-tapping Tony-winning tunes courtesy of iconic composer Alan Menken and lyricist Jack Feldman and supported by a production that literally leaps off the stage and into your heart.
When the illustrious publishing magnate Joseph Pulitzer decides to raise the price that the delivery boys must pay for their daily stack of newspapers, a dreamer named Jack Kelly (Joey Barreiro) quickly becomes the face of a strike and leader of a newly established newsie union. What Jack desires most is to leave the closed off Big Apple for the wide open plains of Santa Fe. Still, he knows that his true responsibility is to his colorful band of fellow newsies including his handicapped best friend Crutchie (Daniel Quadrino) and a new-to-the-game brother duo, Davey (Stephen Michael Langton) and Les (William Sendera).
With Jack’s heart and Davey’s brains the only thing left for the union to acquire is a voice. They find one in what was, at the time, the most unlikely of sources, a female reporter. After a series of run-ins with Jack, including one at a vaudeville theater owned and headlined by the brassy yet classy Medda Larkin (another bravura turn by Patricia Phillips, last seen and raved about by me in CLO’s In The Heights), Katherine Plumber (Beth Stafford Laird) follows and shepherds the story of the strike all the way to the front page.
Katherine and the newsies tangle with a variety other baddies, including the shady detention center warden nicknamed Snyder “the Spider” (Connor McCanlus), but when the word “Disney” is in the billing, you know how the story is going to end.
That doesn’t make the journey to the show’s tidy, hopeful ending any less satisfying though. For that, we owe the acrobatic and hunky male ensemble our thanks and unanimous slack-jawed expressions of amazement. With only a first name and a creative variation on Dixon Reynolds’ authentic newsie ensemble, each actor distinguishes his character from the others with memorable line readings. As Spot Conlon and Race respectively, Sky Bennett and Michael James carried the banner most admirably and adorably.
Richard J. Hinds is the only member of the ensemble that we don’t see onstage, but his ebullient direction and choreography is the backbone of the production. He provides both actors and audience with a much needed breather from the gymnastic wizardry by employing dynamically stark march sequences during a few of the show’s many dance breaks.
Four people who know those dance breaks all too well are Newsies veterans and lead the cast in the roles of Jack, Katherine, Crutchie, and Davey. In the show’s often-reprised signature theme “Santa Fe”, Barreiro’s transcendent final notes shoot far past New Mexico somewhere into the stratosphere and bring down the Act I curtain with the sheer force of their gravity. He is extremely well-matched by Laird who conveys a winning wit in her difficult patter “Watch What Happens”.
Bruce Brockman’s urban-industrial sets evoke West Side Story during group scenes and Romeo and Juliet during Jack and Katherine’s romantic Act II duet.
Crutchie and Davey’s characters are the closest that this show gets to tragedy, but the inner warmth they both display couldn’t be more uplifting. On one healthy leg, Quadrino stands tallest with a smile and a spirit that could light up the whole theater. While I wish that Langton sang more, it was lovely to witness Davey’s arc as living proof of the positive effects of male fraternity.
Sharing the byline, as book writer, alongside Menken and Feldman is a legend in his own right, Harvey Fierstein. They originally envisioned Newsies as nothing more than a licensing opportunity for regional and amateur theaters. The original 1992 film, starring a pre-Batman Christian Bale was a massive flop, but it gained a huge cult following in the intervening years.
Everything changed when the show premiered at the Papermill Playhouse in 2011 to rave reviews. The production was fast tracked to Broadway where it ran for over two years and inspired its own fervent legion of admirers called “Fansies”.
You may feel silly counting yourself among the Fansies, but there’s no better argument for their cause than Hinds’ electric production of one of Disney Theatrical’s strongest outings. It does what every successful musical is supposed to, inspires audiences sing and dance about what the characters are singing and dancing about.
Newsies plays through July 23rd at the Benedum Center. For more information, click here.
Photos courtesy of Matt Polk.