BWW Review: DISNEY'S NEWSIES at JCC Of Rochester SummerStage
The corporate labeling of Disney's Newsies drips with irony. Newsies tells the David versus Goliath story of a strike initiated by the fictional Jack Kelly when newspaper carriers in 1899 took on media mogul Joseph Pulitzer, protesting a hike in the cost of paper delivery. The strike mushrooms into a questioning of unfair child labor practices instituted by corporate greed throughout New York City at the turn of the century. The notion of a children's crusade promoting the rights of the individual laborer against monopolized capitalism should make one question whether Disney is protesting against itself. But Disney often taps into this mythos of impoverished youthful idealism overcoming entrenched, systematized and cynical power, generically elevating the exuberant heroism without promoting the political ideals involved. The book and music for Disney's Newsies is no exception. It swells with emotion but is woefully short on ideas.
The script of Newsies has flaws in character development and formulaic plot turns that are neither flushed out nor justified; however, that doesn't dampen the enthusiasm and earnestness that the talented cast delivers in the current JCC production. Broadway and other professional productions are, in the Disney tradition, overly slick and glossy. It is refreshing to watch real kids totally committed to the story, each one bringing believability beyond Broadway.
Director Lindsay Warren Baker clearly has talent when working with a young company. The actors generate an inner life and create unique characters that establish credible on-stage relationships. Likewise, the choreography by Katie Keller Groat is perfect for this cast. She has designed movement that all the dancers master with precision and vigor while emphasizing their individual talents. An infectious excitement and boundless energy exudes during the production numbers. Ensemble members led by Henry Elliott, Benjamin Bernstein, Tre Kanaley, Caroline Kunz and Gemma Vodacek deliver particularly notable and focused performances.
In the leading roles, Tyler Okun playing the charismatic Jack Kelly and Avery Carlson the hard-nosed progressive reporter Katherine Plumber shine as strong performers and singers. Their complex romantic relationship in the final scene is especially convincing. Drew Jensen, singing with a compelling and appealing voice, portrays the newbie newsie Davey with intelligence and passion. A real standout is Jaston Brooks as Jack's best friend, confidante and young charge, Crutchie. His tender, unpretentious voice in "Letter From the Refuge" is touching without being overly sentimental. There are many fine individual performances, but it cannot be stressed enough that the entire cast delivers a jubilant and soaring evening of entertainment.
Critics often complain about Disney's formulaic slickness and lack of authenticity. Their musicals frequently rely more on flashy spectacle than substance. JCC SummerStage's production should be congratulated. They have designed a show perfectly suited and staged for the talents of their cast. This Newsies delights with honesty, enthusiasm and authenticity without sacrificing production values. The cast's youthful ebullience filled with their desire for theatrical excellence correlates well with their characters' passionate pursuit of justice. In many ways, this driving enthusiasm compensates for the grating clichés in Disney's script. You don't have to be a parent, doting aunt or best friend of a cast member to make this production of Newsies worth the price of admission. These newsies deliver!
JCC SummerStage's Newsies runs through July 28th. For ticket information contact the JCC of Rochester CenterStage at (585) 461-2000 or click here.