BWW Review: Extra! NEWSIES Scoops Up Applause at the Fulton
Remember the college students in LES MISERABLES? Who wanted to strike a blow for workers and peasants? The crowd of people that weren't Jean Valjean (and who occupy a great deal more of Hugo's original novel)? What if they were younger, less idealistic and more practical? What if they could win? And what if someone had given the show more upbeat, danceworthy tunes that weren't about revolution and death? Well, you'd have NEWSIES, and you'd have a pretty great time while you were at it.
As a Disney musical, of course it's family friendly, but it's also intelligent enough, with enough historical characters - Joseph Pulitzer and Theodore Roosevelt to name two - to keep adults on their toes about a real historical event. It's fictionalized, sanitized, and really rather adorable, but it's one of those times that Disney pulls back the diabetes-inducing cuteness and sweetness long enough that you can watch it without having to say "I'm here for the kids." In fact, it's refreshingly adult friendly, more so than ALADDIN, or in the non-Disney realm, ANNIE, while there's no dearth of cherubic dancing, singing kids that the youngest family members will want to be. Wholesome and family oriented doesn't have to mean setting aside your thinking cap or a desire for intelligent entertainment, and NEWSIES proves it. With a book by Harvey Fierstein, there's a challenge to Alan Mencken, frequent Disney music writer, and lyricist Jack Feldman to keep up with him, and they manage to rise to it.
At the Fulton Theatre, Marc Robin directs and choreographs the production with full-voltage energy, to which a stage full of newsboys also has to rise, and they do. Robin is a gifted choreographer and has certainly done fine work in other productions, but the choreography here is particularly striking. For a dance ensemble that's to be a lineup of young newsboys, he's given the show a highly physical, athletic look that's perfectly in keeping with the crowd of poor boys, orphans, and toughs that are in charge of selling the day's news.
Matt Farcher, who plays Jack Kelly, leader of the newsboy throng, is certainly energetic as well as a fine vocalist; local audiences will possibly not recognize him, though they've seen him before - as the Beast at Fulton's BEAUTY AND THE BEAST. His performance here may be a bit more informed, however, by his prior performance as Che Guevara in EVITA in Maine, as well as having played revolutionary Enjolras in LES MIS in the past. (That "LES MIS turns positive" vibe is strong with this show.) Kate Fahrner makes for a tough, but charming, potential love interest as Katherine Plumber, intrepid early female reporter who is trying hard to not be her father's daughter - a major plot point of the show. If there's a real criticism to be had of the book, it's Katherine's part; the amazement over a female journalist shouldn't have been so great, given that Nellie Bly was a major expose writer for Pulitzer (the big bad of the show) in 1887 and that her famous Around The World stunt was done for Pulitzer in 1888. The historic newsboy strike was in 1899, when Bly had only recently (and temporarily - she did war correspondent work in World War One) retired. Writer Fierstein presumably based Katherine on Bly, but the show is set just late enough that anyone relatively familiar with history will find the lack of prior existence of Bly irritating.
The voice of the show, however, is Angela Grovey as Medda Larkin. With a voice and lungs worthy of Motormouth Maybelle in a very different musical, Grovey plays the performer/club owner who is a fierce woman in her own right, a bit of Ma Rainey mixing in with Sophie Tucker. Grovey's "That's Rich" is a show stopper, and it's hard not to wish that Medda would have another song in the second act. Grovey knows the part well, having played Medda in the national tour of NEWSIES, and certainly gives it all she's got not only as the singer and club owner, but as a supporter of the newsboys. How she knows Governor Roosevelt might be open to speculation, but it's not something the children in the audience are going to wonder, and the adults certainly won't care. Once she starts singing, there's no reason to care about anything except listening to that voice again.
"The World Will Know" is Mencken's LES MIS tribute, a big, brassy nod in its own right to "One Day More," for newsboys who want to form a union rather than for college students determined to free workers who weren't interested in being freed. "Watch What Happens," Katherine's number in the first act, is another show stopper much like Medda's, though the huge tap number, "King of New York," that opens the second act is both a musical explosion and a choreographic achievement of no small means. "Seize the Day" is another number that Robin digs into, complete with some excellent gymnastic feats making their way into the dancing.
At the Fulton through July 23, and well worth the trip, including your obtaining a very different program from the usual Playbill style booklet. For tickets and information, visit thefulton.org.