BWW Review: Disney's NEWSIES Shines Now Through July 13 at Woodminster Summer Musicals
Under a canopy of stars and against a silhouette of pine trees, Woodminster Summer Musicals opened its 53rd season last night with Disney's Newsies. Winner of two 2012 Tony Awards, Newsies tells the captivating tale of a plucky hardscrabble group of boys (and a few girls) scraping a measly living together selling newspapers on the street corners of New York in 1899. They band together to stand up to one of the most powerful publishers in all of New York - Mr. Pulitzer - who's hiked up the prices the kids pay for their papers. Their answer - a city-wide strike. Based on true events, this high-energy explosion of song and dance plays now through July 13 up in the Oakland Hills.
With a book by the legendary Harvey Fierstein, the show opens with orphaned street urchin Jack Kelly (played magnificently by Nikita Burshteyn) who has retreated to the rooftop he calls home after a hard day selling "papes." (Watch for Burshteyn in the future. It's only a matter of time before he finds his way to Broadway!) Jack is joined by fellow newsie, Crutchie (the equally magnificent Dominic Dagdagan), a disabled boy he's befriended.
Throughout the show Jack dreams of escaping to Santa Fe, a place he envisions as "clean and green and pretty," a place far removed for the soot and grime and greed of New York. Alan Menken's music, with lyrics by Jack Feldman, paint the picture for us, immediately captivating the audience with the wistful opening number "Santa Fe."
But the harsh reality is that he and Crutchie are back in line the next morning along with the other newsies as they wait to see if the day's headlines are going to help them sell more papers. When they find out the Pulitzer has upped the price for their papers, they quickly form a union to protest the increase. Jody Jaron's energetic and demanding choreography makes this ensemble cast shine, adding vibrancy to the newsie's campaign for a better deal from the behemoth newspaper, New York World.
It's a tale as old as time, this David vs. Goliath story of the little guy against a giant. In this case, it's giant of industry Joseph Pulitzer, adroitly played by Chris Vettel with upper-class snobbery and Republican ideals. He thinks that anyone who doesn't act in his own self-interest is a fool. Except of course, if it's an employee of his.
Davey (Danny Cancel) and his little brother Les (Gideon Klapow) are new to selling papers but Jack Kelly takes them under his wing and soon enough they become the leaders of the fledgling union. Gideon Klapow is the youngest cast member and his talent is immediately evident from his first moment on stage, through the tap-dancing number and beyond. He's the perfect sidekick to Cancel's serious and sincere Davey, who is the brains behind their union, urging Jack to take a stronger stand when he seems to waver.
What's a musical without a love interest? Luckily, we don't have to find out because Jack is immediately smitten by newspaper reporter Katherine Plumber (Amanda Sylvia shines as the gutsy correspondent). He meets her at a club owned by his friend Medda Larkin (played with sassy aplomb by Phaedra Tillery) who's agreed to let the newsies host a rally in her place.
It gets busted up by the police who beat the boys with batons and they even use Crutchie's own crutch to knock him to the ground. Crutchie is hauled off to "The Refuge," an orphanage run by "Snyder the spider" as the kids call him. Jack tells Davey that the Refuge is a jail for underage kids, and that the more kids Snyder locks up the more money he makes.
In one of the most touching scenes in the show Dagdagan's Crutchie sings as he writes a letter to Jack and talks about going to Santa Fe and "ridin' Palominos ev'ry day." But the thrust of his letter is to provide encouragement to the newsies. "...Fam'ly looks out for each other / So you tell all the fellas for me to protect one another."
Conductor Mark Dietrich leads a stellar orchestra with musicians from American Federation of Musicians, Local 6, San Francisco. They professionalism adds immeasurably to the show. But if there is any fault with the show, it lies in the technicalities of sound and sets. While all the leads are properly mic'd, sometimes their voices are sotto voce until the faders are brought up to proper levels and other times the mics aren't bought up at all during short spoken lines. Cast members with just a few lines aren't mic'd at all, making it difficult to hear them. As for the various sets, as they're moved in and out the audience sightlines mean that some can see the actors backstage waiting for their cues to go on stage. While Woodminster is a wonderful outdoor theatre experience, not being able to hear the actors does a great disservice to the talent onstage. Painted on beards and simple sets can work for an audience but not being able to hear the actors properly is a problem.
Nevertheless, the story of kids banding together to demand a square deal from the wealthy Joseph Pulitzer is empowering - like when Jack speaks to the scabs hired by Pulitzer. He implores them to join the union.
"...If we stand together, we change the whole game. And it ain't just about us. All across this city, there are boys and girls who ought to be out playin' or going to school....Fellas, for the sake of all the kids in every sweatshop, factory, and slaughterhouse in this town, I beg you...throw down your papers and join the strike."
Disney's Newsies is a searing indictment of the times - then and now. The Refuge jail for underage kids, run by a man who makes money by filling beds, isn't a far cry from the Refugee jails of today - where kids are kept in conditions we wouldn't allow an animal to live in - by private companies making huge profits from incarcerating them.
As the headlines from today's news continue to cause Americans to recoil in horror about the way poor immigrants are being treated, take time to be inspired by Disney's Newsies and the poor immigrant kids who had the temerity to speak truth to power and win the day.