BWW Review: NEWSIES at Derby Dinner Playhouse
Reviewed by Craig Nolan Highley
Way back in those days of yesteryear, the early 1990's, Jeffrey Katzenberg was celebrating his success. He had almost single-handedly guided the Walt Disney animation studio back to glory after decades of reduced returns, and he had the bright idea to try to do the same to the live-action movie musical.
He went through a stack of screenplays that Disney owned (none of which were intended as musicals) and settled on three that he thought would work. He gave them to composer Alan Menken and asked which of the three could be turned into a full-blown musical.
What resulted from that was 1992's film Newsies. Critics did not particularly like it, and it bombed at the box office. Although it has gone on to enjoy cult status, Katzenberg's dream of the resurgence of the Hollywood musical failed. And though there were a few notable attempts (like 1996's Evita), musicals really didn't make a genuine comeback until Chicago a full ten years later.
Normally that would have been the end of the story for the titular newsboys in turn of the century New York, but in 1994 Disney found success on Broadway with their tiny little musical Beauty and the Beast, based on their film, and a new direction was discovered for the Mouse House: The Great White Way. After a couple of decades of hits and misses turning their big movies into stage musicals, they finally decided to give Newsies a try. In 2012 it opened on Broadway, and it turned out that the stage is where this story needed to be told all along.
It has now found its way to the Derby Dinner Playhouse in a sprightly new production directed by Lee Buckholz and choreographed by Heather Paige Folsom that just bursts with energy. I have actually always been a big fan of the film, but to see it brought to life on stage is just amazing!
It has a pretty good story to tell, based on actual events that have generally been forgotten. In 1899, Joseph Pulitzer (played here by Clay Smith) raises the distribution price of his newspaper The World and convinces all the other newspapers to follow suit. This means that the newsboys have to pay more for the same number of papers to sell, but can't charge any more for each paper. Led by the charismatic Jack (Blake Graham), a newsboy with big dreams, the "newsies" from all over New York form a union and go on strike.
Most of the movie's musical numbers are ported over to the stage show, and a few new ones added. Although this is not one of composer Alan Menken's best scores (his usual writing partner, Alan Menken, had passed away and he was working for the first time with frequent Barry Manilow collaborator Jack Feldman), the high energy of the dance numbers, expertly choreographed by Folsom and performed with gusto by an amazing ensemble, is just infectious.
As usual with a DDP show, the cast is fantastic. Particularly memorable is Smith's villainous turn as Pulitzer; not an evil man, but a greedy one without much thought for anyone below him in the food chain and Smith pulls this off amazingly well. Graham's Jack is full of conflict and inner turmoil, but still likable enough to carry the show on his shoulders. In a role and subplot that is not in the movie but pulls the story together so well on stage, Harli Cooper is a pure delight as Katherine, aspiring reporter and love interest for Jack.
Supporting turns are great as well, particularly J.R. Stuart's dead-on portrayal of then-Mayor Teddy Roosevelt, Bobby Conte's hilarious turn as a Jewish restauranteur, and Tymika Prince's va-va-voom as showgirl Medda Larkin. Among the supporting newsboys, Ian Doran as the handicapped Crutchie, Dick Baker as easily riled Race, and Alfred Jones, Jr. as the amazing dancer Sniper were the real standouts.
My one nitpick would be that some of the actors who had to play multiple roles got a little confusing; frequently their costuming was similar and sometimes played different characters in the same settings, and it honestly through me off a couple of times.
But still, this is an amazing production, and when you throw in the incredibly period-accurate costumes by Sharon Murray Harrah and impressive set by Ron Riall, along with Andrew Duff's lighting and David Nelson's sound, it is truly something to behold.
Featuring David Alea, Drew Ashley, Dick Baker, Andrew Blake, Gino Bloomberg, Timm Charlton, Bobby Conte, Harli Cooper, Kevin Crain, Braedan Criss, Ian Doran, Blake Graham, Michael Hommrich, AJ Hughes, Alexander Hunt, Elijah Kelso, Alfred Jones Jr., Sara Elizabeth King, Tony Milder, Tymika Prince, Josiah Richardson, Ryan Rice, Kylan Ross, Caroline Siegrist, Clay Smith, J.R. Stuart, Alec Talbott, and Zachary Waters.
April 3 - May 19, 2019
Derby Dinner Playhouse
525 Marriott Drive
Clarksville, IN 47129
Tickets (812) 288-8281