A Review: "Newsies" (Westchester Broadway Theatre)

Published: Tuesday, April 9, 2019 By: James V. Ruocco Source: From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2

 

The oft-forgotten newspaper strike of 1899, which pitted New York City newsboys against some of the nation's most powerful print-and-press magnates, is the background fodder for "Newsies," the angst-filled Broadway musical that takes its cue from the 1992 Disney musical of the same name and adds lots more story, songs, characters and dances to its live theatrical incarnation that leaps across the stage in grand, high-kicking, exhilarating fashion.

Aglow with that same agreeably niceness and competence that made "Beauty and the Beast," "The  Little Mermaid" and "Aladdin" utterly charming, "Newsies" travels the same route with little on its mind than to entertain, cajole and bring a smile to your face. And entertain, it does.

It is fast and furious.
It is gum-drop gooey and carbonated.
It is invigorating and playful.
It makes you laugh.
It tugs at your heartstrings.
It shows that there is great strength in solidarity.
It also comes gift wrapped with some Dickensian words of wisdom, some "Oliver Twist" like urchins and orphans and some Disney-tinged bad guys who get their just comeuppance right before they turn out the lights.
 
Coming quickly on the heels of "Phantom," "Menopause" and "Ain't Misbehavin',"  "Newsies" is the perfect fit for Westchester Broadway Theatre. It puts you up close and personal with the cast, the story, the music, and the dances. It is joyously resourceful with lots of recognized warmth and vulnerability. It also presents a strong argument for workplace achievement. In short, what's not to like?

The two-act musical is being staged by Mark Martino whose directorial credits include WBT's "Mamma Mia!" and "A Chorus Line," which he also choreographed. With "Newsies," Martino crafts a plucky, uplifting musical that springs to life in 3-D, pop-up storybook fashion. Things are fun and festive, intricate and dramatic, poignant and tearful and magical and nostalgic.

Working from Harvey Fierstein's lively play script, Martino paints interesting, arresting pictures about 19th-century life, its populace and the news-making headlines of the times. This being a musical, there are lots of romantic cliches, stock characters, giddy dialogue, happy endings, breezy conversations, a surprise or two and important spoken line cues that drift furiously into song at the drop of a newsboy cap. No matter. Martino, in turn, has a tight reign on things. Well versed in the style, mechanics, and mindset of all things Disney, he takes hold of "Newsies," pulls it apart from limb to limb and reshapes it much to his liking using both broad comic and dramatic stokes that thrust the story forward figuratively and imaginatively.
 
Directorially, he doesn't take things for granted. He knows the "Newsies" story inside out. He treats every single character, large or small, with great importance. He knows when to take a breath, pause and let the material breathe from scene to scene, song to song and dance to dance. He knows how to set up a situation, block it and stage it with snap and sparkle. He also gives this production of "Newsies" a cinematic flair that complements WBT's three-quarter staging mechanics and it is up close, voyeuristic viewpoint.  And when necessary, he places his actors in and around the audience in interesting, well thought out tableaux's that heighten the velocity and spirit of the actual story.

On film, "Newsies" contained 12 songs written by Alan Menken and sung by the film's stars Christian Bale, Ann-Margaret, Max Casella and the talented "Newsies" ensemble. Only six are featured in the stage adaptation: "Carrying the Banner," "Santa Fe," "King of New York," "The World Will Know," "Once and For All" and "Seize the Day." For the 2012 Broadway version, Menken, with the able assist of lyricist Jack Feldman, penned several additional songs including "Something to Believe In,"  "Watch What Happens," "The Bottom Line" and  "That's Rich." "Letter from the Refuge," written exclusively for the National Tour was added to all subsequent and future productions of the musical. It fits in perfectly.

For this production of "Newsies," the theater has enlisted the talents of Bob Bray (keyboards) as musical director, backed by the orchestral team of  Ryan Edward Wise (keyboards 2/banjo/guitar), Jay Mack (percussion),  Brian Uhl (trumpet/flugelhorn), Jordan Jancz (bass), Crispian Fordham (reeds), Steve Bleifuss (trombone) and Katie Von Braun (violin). In bringing the popular "Newsies'"score to life, Bray and company are simply masterful as they interpret the Menken/Feldman music with apparent ease, power, and delightful inspiration.

The songs themselves are serviceable to the plot and the characters who sing them. They are distinctive, melodic, playful and catchy, but not very deep. But that's, o.k.  This isn't "Les Miserables," "Evita" "Into the Woods" or "Company." This is "Newsies." Standouts include the hyperactive "King of New York," "Seize the Day." "The World Will Know" and "Santa Fe." Under Bray's tutelage, the solos, duets, and ensemble numbers look terrific, sound terrific and compliment they story at hand without any form of oddness or calculation. The harmonies blend together brilliantly to produce a rich, choral sound that is absolutely sensational on all levels.

On Broadway, the choreography for "Newsies" was the brainchild of Christopher Cattelli, a dance impresario who grabbed  hold of his adrenaline-pumped actor/dancers, spoon fed them enough sugar to get them Disney-high and tossed them a trunk load of cartwheels, back flips, high jumps, somersaults, pirouettes and kick lines to shake them silly and work them up into a feverish sweat. Despite the obvious repetition, especially in the first act, these dances, nonetheless, commanded your attention, got you shouting and clapping madly always begging for and wanting more. Happy to oblige, Cattelli set the Nederlander Theater stage ablaze with full-throttle dance maneuvers and production numbers that sprang to life in glorious, three-dimensional Technicolor.
 
At Westchester Broadway Theatre, choreographer Shea Sullivan takes hold of the "Newsies" dance banner, puts her own personal stamp on things and creates a whirlwind of turn-of-the-century newsboy frenzy and excitement that's catchy, flavorful, breezy and sugar-energy high. Like Cattelli, she too goes the acrobatic route, using plenty of cartwheels, high kicks, leaps, back flips, high jumps, tap steps and somersaults which her anxious cast of actors - every shape and size imaginable - grab, accentuate and replicate in ways that recall the original 2012 Broadway musical. Amazing, yes indeed!

What's wonderful here is watching how it all comes together in a three-quarter staging that actually heightens the flavor, allure, and angst of the piece, its people, its fight, its cause, and its voice. The dances, as envisioned by Sullivan, are trademark athletic with signature acrobatic moves, dynamic turns, ferocious kicks, and specific, detailed movements that keep "Newsies" afloat for well over two hours. Enthralling and rhythmic, this is choreography that makes the most of its young talent to revelatory effect. It is flashy. It is diverse. It is celebratory. It is full of life. It is also clean, well-rehearsed and filled with eye-popping theatrics, pulse, and personal expression.
 
In the role of trusty newsboy leader Jack Kelly, a role inspired by real-life strike leader Kid Blink (Louis Ballatt was his real name), Daniel Scott Walton is every inch as charismatic and memorable as Christian Bale was in the 1992 movie and Jeremy Jordan was in the 2012 Broadway musical adaptation of "Newsies." It's a part he plays with fervor, charm, honesty, and steadfastness. He owns the part from start to finish. Vocally, his rendition of the pivotal ballad "Santa Fe" is rife with the kind of raw energy and snap that personifies his characterization. As both actor and dancer, he takes center stage with the right actor/audience mindset, vitality, and bravura that's impossible to resist.

The part of the educated, upper-class news reporter Katherine Taylor is tailor-made for the lovely, beguiling Mary Beth Donahue who looks and acts as if she stepped out of the pages of a Victorian magazine, novel or turn-of-the-century Broadway musical. She sings beautifully. She acts beautifully. She is perfectly in sync with the telling of the "Newsies" story and her role in it. She also brings the right freshness, scope, drive and personality to the role and keeps it completely natural with nary a cliche or hiccup in sight. Vocally, she performs "Watch What Happens" with melodic brio and conviction. Her romantic duet "Something to Believe In," performed alongside Walton, is also expressed with vocal perfection, sweetness, and honesty.
 
As Crutchie, the young newsboy who carries a crutch due to a leg disability, Patrick Tombs offers a memorable, endearing, heartfelt performance that's real, optimistic and refreshingly honest. His big solo number, the heart-breaking "Letter from a Refuge," is so moving and so perfectly sung, it is guaranteed to melt your heart. Young Benjamin Wohl who plays the newsboy Les is one of those young gifted performers who stands out the minute he steps out on stage to perform. And not just because he's a kid. As actor, singer, and dancer, he possesses that raw, real energy that comes from within and can't be taught, bought or faked. He's the real deal. With talent like his, he will go far, very far. And Broadway is only a phone call away.

Other fine performances come from Galyana Castillo as Medda Larkin, Stuart Marland as Joseph Pulitzer, Alec Cohen as Davy and Bruce Crilly as Governor Roosevelt.

"Newsies" is a lively, big-hearted musical that pays homage to a youth-led revolution, the rag-tag children and teenagers who pushed newspapers across New York City and its boroughs, the strike that made front page news and the demand for equality and justice that today, is more relevant than ever.
Combined with firecracker choreography and cheerful, optimistic direction, "Newsies" hits hard in grand, traditional Disney style. The entire cast is an absolute joy to watch. The music and the dances make them stand out at every angle, twist and turn. The show itself is also surprisingly sweet as it carries the Disney banner gallantly right through to the big finish for a rousing, well-intentioned finale of candy-coated floss, choreographic dazzle, and significant color. And that in itself is something well worth celebrating.