It's not often a newspaper critic gets to review a show about newspapers.
“Newsies The Musical” is a fictionalized account of a historical 1899 labor strike, when New York City's newsboys took on newspaper magnates Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst. But the show doesn't just tell an underdog story -- it has its own underdog story.
Disney first produced “Newsies” as a live-action movie musical at a time when the genre was widely considered dead. Upon its release in 1992, the film did little to dispel that view, getting mixed reviews from critics and bombing at the box office. Over the years, though, the film developed such a strong following that Disney adapted it into a successful Broadway production in 2012. It was nominated for eight Tony Awards and won two: Best Choreography and Best Original Score.
Alan Menken's score is the show's greatest asset. The multi-Oscar-winning composer is best known for his work on Disney animated musicals like “The Little Mermaid,” “Beauty and the Beast” and “Aladdin,” several of which have gone on to become Broadway productions.
His score to “Newsies” has a big, catchy Broadway sound with a period Irish-American-sounding influence. Lyricist Jack Feldman is not one of Menken's regular collaborators, but his words fit well with the music here. Just be ready for some exaggerated New York accent rhymes like “Starin' right at-cha! Lousy with stature! (stat-cha!)”
The set, designed by Jason Bolen, features a city skyline covered in newsprint, while the stage is made to look like a cobblestone street. As the show opens, Jack Kelly (Tyler Lenhart) invites his friend -- known only as “Crutchie” (Joe Ogren) -- to join him in his “penthouse,” a fire escape.
They watch the dawn and dream of a better life out west, in “Santa Fe.” These are two of the titular “newsies” kids struggling to make a living on the street by selling newspapers. Soon, they are out hawking “papes” in overlapping harmonies to the boisterous tune of “Carrying the Banner (of New York)."
Meanwhile, Pulitzer (Tim Fullerton), publisher of the New York World, decides to raise the price that the newsies pay for their papers. This is a step too far for Jack, who urges the others to go on strike until the price is brought back down. A lone reporter, Katherine Plumber (Annali Fuchs), decides to write an article about the cause.
The book, by Harvey Fierstein (“La Cage aux Folles,” “Kinky Boots”), streamlines the film's storyline. The focus is on the labor strike, and if that doesn't grab you, there's not much else there. The show has a lot of “Do You Hear the People Sing?”-style moments.
There are three inspirational anthems in Act 1 alone -- and individually, they're all very effective. Ironically, Jack is not a very inspirational leader. He does single-handedly start the strike with the rousing “The World Will Know” (anthem No. 1), but after that, he nearly quits at every turn. On a more personal, emotional level, there's a love story between Jack and Katherine. It's a standard romantic comedy plot line: Boy meets girl, boy annoys girl, boy slowly reveals his heart of gold to girl. It's fine, but not really sufficient to be the heart of the entire show.
Despite all this, Lenhart is a likable lead as Jack. His rendition of “Santa Fe” works as a traditional Disney “I want” song, and later, a desperate cry for escape, when it returns at the end of Act 1.
Tim Fuchs' flustered “Watch What Happens” embodies a writer's terror of facing a blank sheet of paper, before turning into anthem No. 2. After all this inspiration, it's a relief when she and the newsies get to perform a lighthearted tap number, “King of New York,” in Act 2.
Both Lenhart and Fuchs nail the big, applause-inducing final notes of their respective solos.
As Crutchie, Ogren's performance seems straight out of an old-time Hollywood movie. There's charm to that, even if it doesn't do much for the character's credibility. (If he could have had any, as written.)
Fuchs plays Davey, a newcomer to the newsies scene, and later, the brains of the strike. He had to leave school to support his family when his father lost his job due to a workplace accident. Fuchs provides an even-keeled contrast to Lenhart's emotion-driven Jack. He takes the lead in anthem No. 3, “Seize the Day.”
In the tradition of “Grease,” most of the “kids” appear to be played by adults. However, there is at least one real kid onstage, Davey's younger brother Les. At the attended performance, the young actor often stole the spotlight, and got laughs with his precocious lines. (The role is played at alternating performances by Weston Marum and Isiah Westbay).
The other newsies have colorful names like Racetrack and Specs, but they don't get much individual development, generally singing and dancing in unison, probably to underline the whole union “stick together” message of the show.
The divide between the boys and their clientele is pointed up by Eddy L. Barrows' costumes. The well-heeled New Yorkers who pass look pressed and starched, while our heroes wear loose vests, wrinkled shirts and, of course, those distinctive newsboy hats.
With Pulitzer as the villain of the piece, it's no surprise that this play did not win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. (Hearst, meanwhile, is alluded to exist somewhere offstage.) Fullerton is as menacing as the script allows, and does his best with his workmanlike villain's song, “The Bottom Line.” Villain's songs are usually Menken's forte. Where's a giant man-eating plant or an evil sea witch when you need them?
PCPA fans will recognize a couple of familiar faces: Kitty Balay plays Medda Larkin, a vaudeville theater proprietress who belts out a saucy number called “That's Rich.” Balay also doubles as a nun, while Leo Cortez plays three very different roles: the mayor of New York, a deli owner and the world's cruel distribution clerk, Mr. Wiesel.
“Newsies” has elements of an old-fashioned dance musical, with all the spectacle and corniness that implies. The work of director-choreographer Michael Jenkinson and co-choreographer Katie Wackowski is as impressive as ever.
However, there are few moments that don't feel choreographed, which is at odds with the raucous nature of the newsboys. This is a show where people pirouette with joy on a regular basis. This is also a show where a child is beaten with his own crutch and then dragged off to a rat-infested boys' home. The tones don't always mesh. Then, there are the parts where the newsies are expected to look tough. In the number “Brooklyn's Here,” there's a lot of fistfight posturing that makes “West Side Story” look like a documentary on urban violence.
While the material has issues that go back to the original film, there is a great deal of talent on display in Jenkinson's production. The entire cast and crew work as hard as the newsies do in the story. Every moment, someone is dancing, running, climbing or belting to the rafters. This show has got to be intense to perform. The story is largely set outdoors and thus should play very well at Solvang Festival Theater, where it opened Thursday.