On Stage: 'Newsies' Stops the Presses!Published: Wednesday, April 17, 2019 By: Bruce Apar Source: TAP into Somers
There’s good news for Disney fans, musical theater fans, and just plain family-fun fans, at Westchester Broadway Theatre in Elmsford. It’s “Newsies.” It’s there through May 26. And it’s well worth your pennies. (Well, that’s what newspapers cost in 1899, when this fact-based story takes place.)
In its original incarnation as a 1992 live-action movie musical, “Newsies” didn’t exactly stop the presses with movie critics or the movie-going public. The reviews read more like obituaries. But leave it to Disney’s ingenious imagineers (that’s a real word, coined by the Mouse House) to resurrect “Newsies” as a buoyant stage musical that has won a cult-like following.
In its heyday on Broadway, “Newsies” won the top theater awards (Tony and Drama Desk) for its thrilling, acrobatic choreography, as well as for its infectious score, with music by Disney veteran Alan Menken (“Aladdin,” “The Little Mermaid,” “Beauty and the Beast”) and lyrics by Jack Feldman (whom, apropos of nothing, I remember as a classmate at Syracuse University). Fun fact: Jack wrote the lyrics for Barry Manilow’s conga-size hit, “Copacabana.”
Beyond the consistently enjoyable music, which is by turns triumphant and tantalizing, there is the superb book by Broadway master Harvey Fierstein. The storyline in many a musical—especially of the modern era—is often its weakest link. In “Newsies,” we instantly become enmeshed in the compelling, mostly true tale of newsboys at the turn of the 20th century. They were pavement-pounding entrepreneurs eking out a subsistence.
In the slanguage of the day, they were called “newsies,” and they called the product they hawked “the papes.” In a real sense, they were the original dead end kids, to recall an enduring Hollywood acting ensemble of the 1930s-50s (later branded The Eastside Kids and The Bowery Boys).
Homeless and often orphaned, newsies led hardscrabble lives that were supported by their meager earnings from selling daily newspapers at a penny apiece. The rub was that the boys had to first pay for the copies that they would sell. Their profit was one-half cent per copy.
Though “Newsies” is not nearly as dark as that description may sound, one of this production’s singular accomplishments is the palpable sense of place that’s conjured on stage. The show is highly atmospheric. It pulls the audience into a bygone age, thanks to set designer Steve Loftus’s slate-gray, steel bridgework, depicting lower Manhattan; Andrew Gmoser’s occasionally shadowy lighting scheme; costume designer Keith Nielsen’s earth-tone wardrobe motif; and director Mark Martino’s overall command of stagecraft and keeping the actors disciplined in evoking a streetwise swagger and dialect. The eye-popping choreography is by Shea Sullivan.
The pleasing songs range from love ballads (the Aladdin-like “Something to Believe In”) to power ballads (“Carrying the Banner”) to defiant anthems (“The World Will Know”). Other standout numbers are the beautiful “Santa Fe” (shades of Rent) and the military march cadence of “Seize the Day.” It adds up to a candy-flavored history lesson that sings and dances as if on a sugar high. You’ll feel the same way – even before you reach dessert.
As the story goes, fin de siècle newspaper moguls Joseph Pulitzer (yes, the Prize guy) and William Randolph Hearst had increased the cost of papers they sold to the newsies to 60 cents a hundred, from 50 cents a hundred, further cutting into the boys’ already razor-thin margin.
Making matters worse, if the newsies didn’t sell all their papers, it was their loss. That lop-sided transaction ignited a two-week strike. The lowly newsies eventually won concessions from the high-handed publishers, who agreed to let the newsboys return unsold papers without having to pay for them. The settlement also was precursor to the newsies unionizing, to ensure safer work conditions, better wages, and shorter hours.
In the show, the strikers are led by newsboys’ organizer Jack Kelly (Daniel Scott Walton), who is bolstered by his fearless sidekick Crutchie (Patrick Tombs), as well as by preppy Davey (Alec Cohen) and Davey’s precocious little brother Les (Benjamin Wohl).
Of course, this being a Disney musical, there’s a love interest for Jack in Katharine Plummer (Mary Beth Donahoe). They are aces delivering the familiar boy-girl Disney-sweet harmonizing.
We’re also treated to a rousing novelty number, sung with gusto by Galyana Castillo as a sassy chanteuse. There’s also a Disneyfied villain or two, but nothing the hero and heroine can’t handle.
All the above actors are top performers who coalesce into a tight, fluid unit that holds the stage—as well as our rapt attention—with great flair and polish. This show is so irrepressible, in the trademark Disney way, that it fairly dares you not to like it. Trust me, you’ll lose the dare.
So, I just spent more than 700 words telling you why I like “Newsies” so much. But my actor friend Peter McClung, who I saw right afterwards in the lobby, neatly summed it up in an elegant four words.
As he walked by me, Peter said, “It’s the male Annie.” I couldn’t have said it better myself, even if I had 700 words to say it.