BWW Review: High Energy NEWSIES at Theatre By The Sea
Inspired by the actual newsboys strike of 1899, Disney's NEWSIES is a slightly updated stage version of the 1992 film of the same name. Despite the movie's lack of success at the box office, it became a cult favorite, and bringing it to Broadway in 2011 seems like a no-brainer. The source material is perfect for a high energy stage musical with outstanding dance numbers and supremely catchy songs. Theatre By The Sea's production is heavy on the dance, and includes some fantastic scenic design and a cast brimming with energy and charisma. Despite the seriousness of some of the subject matter--child labor, unions, capitalist opportunists, this show is pure fun with just enough drama in it to create and raise the stakes.
In New York 1899, Jack Kelly (Clay Roberts) works as a newsie--one of a group of young men who buy stacks of newspapers in the morning, and spend the day selling them. Kelly is the de facto leader, but he dreams of saving up enough money to get out of the city and head west to Santa Fe. Unfortunately for the newsies, publisher Joseph Pulitzer decides to raise the wholesale price of his papers so that he can make a little bit more money, and the newsies will have to sell more papers to make the same profit. The boys decide to band together with other newsies from across all five boroughs and form a union to demand fair pay from Pulitzer and other newspaper magnates.
The stage version has some critical differences from the film, but those changes all make sense and help the story move quickly. The reporter for the rival paper, who takes an interest in the newsies story (Bill Pullman in the movie) is now a novice female writer named Katherine Plumber (Katie Claire McGrath). Her character also takes on the role of a love interest for Kelly, which adds an interesting tension in Act II, and gives the audience one fairly well-rounded female character in a cast of mostly men. The best-known songs from the film--Carrying the Banner, The World Will Know and Seize the Day are front and center, and reprised frequently.
Clay Roberts as Jack Kelly absolutely radiates charisma, and manages to balance his character's cockiness with genuine concern for his friends very well. Roberts is a talented singer and dancer, but his acting performances occasionally veer into an earnestness that is a bit too much. Still, this is a demanding and physically exhausting role that he takes in stride and makes his own. Katie Claire McGrath as Katherine is a nice compliment to Jack Kelly's bravado. When we first meet her, she is an inexperienced reporter who seems unsure of whether or not she should even be covering the newsies' strike, but as the newsies gain confidence, so does she.
Charlie Sutton's choreography is as much of a star in this show as the actors are. The dancing is almost relentless in its energy, and the audience is treated to everything from tap to acrobatics, with giant, high-flying moves that fill the stage. Kyle Dixon's sets are more spare than in previous TBTS shows, and he really makes use of the vertical space, rather than the depth of the stage. This leaves plenty of room for the larger-than-life dance sequences that make this a spectacle of movement and song.
This is a young cast--the youngest of whom is Matthew Packard age 11, but the age of the performers in no way implies that they are any less professional than their more senior co-stars. What the age of these actors does is give this production so much energy and liveliness that their enthusiasm is infectious. Though there are some moments in the script that drag a bit, all is forgotten once the ensemble is back on stage. For fans of the Disney film, this stage production is a must-see, but there's also plenty here to win over the skeptics and songs that will be stuck in your head for weeks.
Disney's Newsies will be presented from July 17-August 10. Performances are scheduled for Tuesday through Saturday evenings at 8:00 pm, Thursdays at 2:00 pm, Saturdays at 3:00 and Sundays at 5:00 pm, with special performance times on Sunday, July 21 at 2:00 & 7:00 pm and a special added matinee performance on Wednesday August 7 at 2:00 pm. The theatre is located at 364 Cards Pond Road, Wakefield. Tickets are on sale at the box office Monday through Saturday from 11:00 am - 6:00 pm, Sundays from 12 noon - 5:00 pm and performance days until curtain, online 24-hours-a-day at www.theatrebythesea.com and via telephone during normal box office hours by calling (401) 782-TKTS (8587) or (866) 811-4111
Photo: ensemble by Steven Richard Photography