BWW Review: Disney's NEWSIES at The Fox Theatre
It's not unusual for movies to be adapted for the stage these days, in fact, it's become rather commonplace. But typically, musicals written for the screen that flop (even though they might have a rather substantial cult following), are usually avoided for obvious reasons. Although, that didn't stop the producers of XANADU from plowing forward, go figure. The Disney film NEWSIES actually seems likes a logical choice to revamp and produce on the stage, and it wound up winning Tony Awards for best score and choreography back in 2012, and becoming quite the hit. So why am I so surprised? I guess because the current touring production, while occasionally dazzling, comes off slightly uninspired and flat. Now, don't get me wrong, there are some really fine performances, an eye catching scenic design, cool effects, and energetic choreography that certainly lives up to expectations. And, like the film, an awful lot of people, both young and old, are guaranteed to truly love this show, as evidenced by the very enthusiastic response from the audience at the performance I attended.
The plot (book by Harvey Fierstein) of the show, like the film, is inspired by Children of the City by writer David Nasaw. It follows the newsboys who go on strike after the price of the papers is raised, cutting into their meager profits gained from hawking their headlines on street corners. For the most part, these are homeless or orphaned kids who are struggling to survive in New York in 1899. Although there are also a pair of lads (Les and Davey) who are trying to help their family after their father has been injured and left unemployed. Throw in a love story and the appearance of President Theodore Roosevelt and you have all the elements in place for a solid and compelling tale. If those pieces seem somewhat familiar, it might be because this is sort of an East Side Kids version of ANNIE, without the incredibly catchy score, set in a different era, and with a different President Roosevelt appearing at the end. Yes, I know these are completely separate stories, and comparing the two may seem like comparing apples to oranges, but that's how it struck me.
Joey Barreiro plays Jack Kelly, a tough kid with a questionable past that has the law on his heels, who acts as the leader of this ragtag group of youngsters, and he does splendid work in the role. When he meets up with Katherine (wonderfully essayed by Morgan Keene), an aspiring journalist, it's a case of opposites attracting, no matter how unlikely that may seem initially. She positively shines during the tongue twisting "Watch What Happens." Iain Young draws on our sympathy as the gimpy Crutchie, and Ethan Steiner is absolutely adorable as Les (the role is also played by John Michael Pitera, depending on the day you see it). Stephen Michael Langton is sharp as Les' older brother Davey, who suggests that the newsboys organize a union, and Steve Blanchard is properly ruthless as publisher Joseph Pulitzer. Michael Gorman (Wiesel), Devin Lewis (Morris Delancey), and Alex Prakken (Oscar Delancey) project just the right sinister air for their roles, and the rest of this large cast (many of whom play multiple parts) is uniformly solid. However, Aisha de Haas is simply terrific as Medda Larkin, and after her great take on "That's Rich," you really miss her wonderful vocal contributions.
Jeff Calhoun's direction seems a little lackluster at times, although some of that could be blamed on the sound, which leaves a lot of important lyrics buried in the mix. Still, there's a rushed quality to the proceedings that's good for the pacing, but not for the story. Tobin Ost has created an amazing multilevel scenic design that is in almost constant motion, and it benefits from some clever projections created by Sven Ortel. Jess Goldstein keeps the costumes drab for the most part, which is in keeping with the overall look and feel of the show, while letting the character of Katherine provide the color that really pops within the surroundings. Christopher Gattelli's choreography is acrobatic and athletic, which injects some life into the show, but makes you wonder where these hungry and desperate kids find the energy to bounce around and leap with such relish and abandon.
If you're a fan of the original film, then I think you will find a lot to like about NEWSIES. I wasn't quite so enthralled, but the touring production currently playing The Fox Theatre through January 31, 2016, is still worthwhile entertainment.