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BWW Review: NEWSIES Is the Orpheum's Latest Edition

There was a moment tonight in the Orpheum's presentation of NEWSIES that I envisioned the entire production as an animated feature -- and why not? There was the infectious music of Alan Menken, who long ago set the "gold standard" for the resurgence of Disney animation beginning with THE LITTLE MERMAID; there was, too, the "underdog" hero ("Jack Kelley," played with panache and charisma by Joey Barreiro), who serves as a point of inspiration for a horde of ragtag "newsies"; and instead of an "Ariel" or "Belle," there was "Katherine," the spirited young "girl reporter," who, with her independence and ingenuity, could fall right in line with the other young heroines of Disney films.

The genesis for NEWSIES is a misbegotten film which I originally saw in the early 1990's, with Christian Bale in the lead. It was one of those Disney films for which I had high hopes, but which ultimately disappointed (the same thing had happened with 1967's THE ONE AND ONLY GENUINE, ORIGINAL, FAMILY BAND with John Davidson). However, a few years ago, someone had the idea of resurrecting NEWSIES for the stage; with a book by savvy Harvey Fierstein, music by the aforementioned Mr. Menken, and lyrics by Jack Feldman, this version proved surprisingly successful, winning two TONY awards and audience approval.

The plot itself is fairly simple; late 1890's newspaper giant Joseph Pulitzer decides to fatten his wallet at the expense of the scruffy young rascals who sell his papers. "Jack," abetted by his friend "Crutchie" and brothers "Davey" and "Les" (the last two forced to earn money on the streets when their father has been injured in an accident), suddenly morphs into a "David" prepared to take on the "giant." When "Katherine" (a "Lois Lane" in training) meets Jack at a stage show, she is not only eventually attracted to him (after a brief sparring), but sees the plight of the youngsters and uses her talent and "smarts" to assist them.

There are lots of nods to other musicals here. When Jack sets his followers in motion, it's easy to recall the streetwise youngsters of OLIVER or the ill-used orphans in ANNIE (by the way, the Roosevelt family is represented here, too); there is also the rousing, idealistic spirit of the revolutionaries in LES MISERABLES. Ultimately, though, NEWSIES is its own musical. There is much to like and enjoy here: Tobin Ost's magnificent and mobile set pieces (the clotheslines reminded me of the set for Elmer Rice's STREET SCENE), the skeletal high rises, the newspaper projections; and, of course, the talented and energetic young cast. In addition to the dynamic Mr. Barreiro, Morgan Keene is an attractive, enterprising "Katherine" (she has a show-stopping moment in the beautifully sung "Watch What Happens"); Zachary Sayle, a sadly sweet "Crutchie"; Stephen Michael Langton, an intelligent (if initially tentative) "Davey"; and John Michael Pitera, a represented here as well). There are times, too, ("Seize the Day" comes to mind) that I was reminded of the pugnacious, scene-stealing "Les." They are all terrific young performers. The adults, too, create strong impressions: Aisha de Haas' "Medda," whose theatre employs Jack to paint backdrops and who has sympathy for the strikers, has but one number, "That's Rich" -- but it's a joy; and Steve Blanchard's "Joseph Pulitzer" is an unflinching, self-made man.

What appeals to the audience, though, is the energy and zest of the musical numbers (i.e., "Seize the Day," "King of New York"), wonderfully envisioned and worked out by Chrisopher Gattelli. (The curtain call alone is almost worth the price of admission.) These young performers tap, use musical spoons, do somersaults, etc.; in short, the entire production moves. Director Jeff Calhoun has fashioned a real crowd-pleaser with NEWSIES. Photo courtesy of the Orpheum. Through December 13.

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From This Author Joseph Baker

I received my Master of Arts Degree in English from Memphis State University and worked as an English instructor at Christian Brothers High School from (read more...)