BWW Review: Kids Cast Carries NEWSIES at Skylight
When you're putting on a show that's up against both the wild expectations of a cult-like following and the lukewarm expectations of folks who have no clue what Newsies is, there's bound to be a spectrum of opinions at play. If you fall in the latter camp, newsflash: Newsies started as a movie musical starring a young Christian Bale. Since its 1992 box office debut (and bomb), Disney's Newsies has indeed gained a legion of devotees. I happen to be one myself.
In 2012, Disney turned their beloved musical about the 1899 Newsboys Strike into a Broadway show. No more singing Christian Bale. No more fatherly Bill Pullman. There are new lyrics to "Santa Fe," "Seize the Day," and more (#NotMyLyrics). But, to their credit, the creatives kept the insanely-athletic dancing, added some powerful women, and supplemented with more music by Alan Menken and Jack Feldman.
Being a die-hard fan of the film, I saw Newsies on stage in New York shortly after its debut. After seeing this Skylight performance, my opinion hasn't changed much. There are great moments alongside others that fall flat in a way that perhaps can't be helped when translating the humor, heart, and nuance of a favorite movie to the stage. Often times, especially in musical theater, strokes are made broader and characters are rendered formulaically, simply by virtue of the venue. In that way, Disney ended up with a somewhat vanilla version of its cult classic.
Let's quickly sum up the plot before going any further. Based on real events, Newsies follows Jack Kelly and his band of newspaper boys (and girls) as they strike against mogul Joseph Pulitzer at the turn of the 20th century. Notable characters in the story include Jack's pal Crutchie, a crippled boy with a heart of gold, and the duo of Davey and Les, brothers who, unlike the rest of the newsboys, have a home and a family at the end of a day of selling "papes."
As for the aforementioned added women, journalist Katherine Plumber is a big point in favor of the stage version of Newsies. In the film, Jack's love interest is very domestic and bland. Now, he's got a smart, quick-witted gal who's full of brilliant ideas. She's great. There's also Medda Larkin, a burlesque performer who acts as a sort of motherly benefactress to Jack. Though she also appears in the movie (shout-out Ann Margret), on stage she does more to advance the plot to its ending, and that's a satisfying thing.
Overall, this is a play about the young having their voices heard. Says Director of this Skylight production, Molly Rhode, "The Newsboys Strike of 1899 may have been at the turn of the century, but it doesn't feel far away. The way these young people stand up and say, 'Listen to me!' is happening right now, all across the globe... Young people are paying attention. And they deserve a seat at the table."
What Rhode and the Skylight have done with this 2012 script is something no Broadway or National Tour could do: They cast an army 20-strong of young actors, ranging in age from elementary to high school. The leads are professionals, but the youth ensemble is what carries the whole show. There's a crazy amount of heart and spirit bubbling up in this young cast, and when they threaten to "stomp all over you," it's easy to believe they just might.
Casting was also a clear commitment to bringing girls and people of color into the mix, and the diversity is certainly refreshing. It's cool to see other kids in the audience look up in awe and see themselves in these young actors. In the world of Newsies, kids have voices and those voices are heard. Any child would be easily captivated by such a reality. It's this message - and snarky lines like "Why do old people talk?" - that draws in the youngsters and makes Newsies a great show to see with kids.
Now on to the pros. As protagonist Jack Kelly, Marco Tzunux, an alum from the Chicago College of Performing Arts, leads with charisma and charm. Some of Jack's songs seem to fall more in his range than others, with those in his lower register being the strongest. Overall, the character is best when Tzunux plays it effortlessly cool and collected and lets the handsome tone of his voice do it's thing. Fancy runs are not a prerequisite for a likable leading man. Tzunux has room to dial it back just a skosh.
As the other newsboys, Jordan Arrasmith as Crutchie is a thoroughly sweet and sympathetic favorite. As older brother Davey to youngster Les (double cast with Abram Nelson and Edward Owczarski), Nicholas Parrott delivers just what fans would expect from this character: someone mild-mannered and straight-laced with a fine singing voice. No complaints. Rival to the newsies gang, Skylight alum Lee Palmer plays Joseph Pulitzer. With a voice rich in tone and a quietly-commanding presence, Palmer brings a notably remarkable air to the part. It's almost too bad he didn't have more to do.
The ladies, though few in comparison, are particularly strong. I've never seen Rachael Zientek in a role she didn't grab by the horns, and Newsies' Katherine Plumber is no exception. Funny, strong-voiced, and always top-notch, Zientek makes herself at home here, nailing the wordy, high-speed "Watch What Happens." Natalie Harris shines as Medda Larkin, singing to the rafters in Act One's "That's Rich." She's yet another example where it's a shame the show doesn't give her more to do. Finally, there's a delightful surprise when the newsies of Brooklyn show up in Act Two and turn out to be a mighty chorus of - drumroll, please - newsgirls! Those feisty Brooklyn babes have the audience grinning big time.
It seems everyone in the cast can hold their own in dance shoes, even tap shoes. Act Two kicks off with the high-energy "King of New York," where the ensemble shows off some killer time steps. The tap number makes for some of the best bits of choreography in the entire show. You'd be surprised how many flips, leaps, and spins this local ensemble has in them - and yet, I wish there were even more.
That's the thing about Newsies on stage - and not just this particular production, but the concept as a whole. In my experience, it leaves one wanting more. More of what? It's hard to put a finger on it. That's the risk you take when adapting an obscure cult classic for a new generation. In the end, watching this cast of local kids is delightful enough and this Skylight Newsies has all the makings of a fun outing for the family this holiday season. But I'd follow up any stage viewing of Newsies with a peek at the 1992 film. If you need me, I'll be dusting off my DVD.
Photo credit: Mark Frohna