Review: REVIEW: DISNEY'S NEWSIES at Southern Theatre

Strong performances, dancing lifts maudlin musical

By: Sep. 26, 2022
Review: REVIEW: DISNEY'S NEWSIES at Southern Theatre
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Aristotle is credited with coming up with the phrase, "the whole is greater than the sum of its parts." Had he witnessed the Columbus Children Theatre's production of DISNEY'S NEWSIES, the philosopher may have reversed the quotation to "the parts are greater than the sum of the whole." An energetic cast, sharp management by director Joe Deer and choreographer Vincent Sylvester, and tight orchestration by musical director Lara Brooks lifted a cheesy musical to stellar heights.

DISNEY'S NEWSIES runs Sept. 23 through Oct. 2 at the Southern Theatre (21 E. Main Street in downtown Columbus).

NEWSIES has so much going for it. It is inspired by a real-life event. In 1899, news hawkers in the streets of New York went on strike to protest the unfair practices of Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst. It is, as the character Katherine Pulitzer/Pullman describes in the show, "a real David and Goliath showdown" with the underclass and destitute workers going up against "the fat cats" - the power brokers who seem to hold all the cards.

Although newspapers are currently in the death throes, the subplot of how the media often controls the narrative of what is happening in the world is just as poignant (if not more important) today as it was in the 1890s. Just substitute the names of Rupert Murdoch and Ted Turner in for the names for Pulitzer and Hearst and a large chunk of the show could be reset in 2022.

Adding to the win column for this run of NEWSIES is the way CCT, which enters its 60th season this year, brings the show to life. Hunter Minor is masterful as Jack Kelly, the charismatic leader of the newsies' strike. His booming tenor voice overcame some of the opening night sound miscues at the theatre and was captivating as the focal point of the show. The songs "Santa Fe" and "Something to Believe" shed light on Minor's singing range. In addition to his vocal gymnastics, Minor handles the show's considerable physical challenges including being chased through a labyrinth of escape ladders without appearing winded.

Deer surrounds Minor with equally talented actors including Alexa Clint (Katherine Pullman/Pulitzer), Matthew Phillips ("Crutchie"), Nick Van Atta (Davey), and Michael Broadhurst (Les) and Tirzah Washington (Medda Larkin).

Clint and Minor play off each other well as one of those couples whose relationship walks a thin line between love and hate. During the first meeting, Kelly is instantly smitten with Katherine while she does her best to ignore him. As the show progresses, Katherine's admiration for Kelly turns to love. At the time, Kelly begins to trust her less and less. Clint's highpoint is her navigation of the perilous dictional challenge of "Watch What Happens," a high-speed chase of a song similar to "The Speed Test" from THOROUGHLY MODERN MILLIE and "Modern Major General" from the HMS PINAFORE.

While Katherine pulls out a love story from Kelly, Phillips, Van Atta, Broadhurst and Washington also expose other sides of Kelly's and the show's personality. "Crutchie," a hobbled newsie, gives the show its heart/sentimentality, brothers Davey and Les keep Kelly grounded and focused and Larkin exposes Kelly's artistic side.

Chad Baker is the chief antagonist in the show as Joseph Pulitzer. However Baker's skillful portrayal of Pulitzer raises the character to much more than a greedy newspaper editor.

In fact, in the CCT version of NEWSIES, it is often hard to tell who the good guys are and who are the bad ones, often because they are played by the same people. Todd Covert plays the aptly named Wiesel, who enforces the price hikes of the newspapers, is also cast as the likeable deli owner Mr. Jacobi and the mayor while Brandon Boring also handles the dual roles of the affable Seitz, one of Mr. Pulitzer's office workers, and the villainous Snyder, who runs a refuge for wayward boys. Patrick Doss is multi-casted as Bunsen, the stage manager, and of course, Governor Roosevelt.

Some of the best parts of the show are the elaborate and jubilant dance sequences choreographed by Vincent Sylvester. Sylvester takes a diverse group of dancers ranging from college graduates like Reese Anthony, Megan Gifford and Ryan Patrick Jones to high school students like Tori Edwardson and Isidora Diaz to elementary school students like Josephine Boyd and lets them showcase their skills in tap and other high energy performances.

Providing the musical backbone of the show is a talented orchestra of Tony Richards and Harrison Ponce (keyboards), Mathew Kinnear (violin), James McDermott (cello), Robert Brooks (reed), Ben Guegold (trumpet), Parker Lewis (trombone), Larry Marotta (guitar/banjo), Josh Newburry (electric bass), Drew Martin (drums), and Will Mayer (percussion).

Where NEWSIES misses the mark is not in its performance but in its storytelling. Disney had a chance to make something real and powerful. Instead the audience is left with a 'Disneyification' of history. It adds a love story when it doesn't need one, makes some interesting characters one dimensional and hollow, and bacon wraps it in the mawkish lyrics of Jack Feldman.

Disney can produce great music. Alan Menken, who wrote the music for NEWSIES, and his former colleague, the late lyricist Howard Ashman, delivered some of Disney's best lyrics. Who else could rhyme "decorating" and "expectorating"? However, Feldman (who also co-wrote the lyrics to Barry Manilow's Copacabana), gives the audience such maudlin clunkers as this one from Crutchie's "Song from the Refuge," "These here guards, they is rude. They say "jump", boy, you jump or you're screwed! But the food ain't so bad, 'least so far, 'cause so far, they ain't brung us no food!"

Had this show had been trusted into the hands of lesser performers, musicians, and directors, NEWSIES could have been a colossal disappointment. However, this talented cast was more than strong enough to make up for some of the aspects of this inane script. And that makes it a story worth telling.


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