BWW Review: DISNEY'S NEWSIES at Arena Stage
Despite being set in 1899, NEWSIES feels marvelously modern. It is sharp, slick, and explosive.
Even if, like me, you saw the bright new production of NEWSIES on Broadway in 2012, the Arena Stage setting is instantly memorable. Being emerged in the theater-in-the-round is like the difference between seeing a beloved Disney film on the big screen and walking into the middle of the action in the Disney theme parks. Like many of the shows that take place in the Fichandler theater, set designer Ken MacDonald stretches the performance area from the stage all the way to the back walls. Just walking in to take your seat places you right in New York City among the clotheslines filled with laundry hung out to dry.
For anyone who likes their theater to be gritty and rough around the edges, take a pass on this one. NEWSIES is a lighthearted underdog story that teaches if you shoot for the stars, you may land among the newsprint. Expect frequent bursts of pop, pizazz, and gushy romance. Although not a deep-thinker, NEWSIES has a polished perfection that has become Disney's trademark. Director Molly Smith has ensured that there are no loose ends and definitely no weak links.
In case you have forgotten, NEWSIES comes armed with a nearly invincible writing team. Alan Menken and Jack Feldman partnered on the music and Harvey Fierstein penned the book. Seize the Day is the show's most famous song that fans evidently came for. People howled from the first note of the overture that sampled the tune. If it's your favorite, never fear. You will get your fill. The cast goes all out with precisely synchronized sequences and the iconic newsboy leap atop paper stacks. The refrain is sprinkled throughout the show. However, if you've done enough "opening of the gates" during your high school theater camp days, there's another show-stopping number to look forward to.
The big flashy headline of this show is King of New York. Erin Weaver (Katherine Plumber) is the only main cast member in the scene, but the newsies themselves step up and have their moment filled with amped up acrobatics and unbelievable tap routines by choreographer Parker Esse. Tap prodigy Luke Spring (Elmer), who danced on the Ellen show as a tiny tyke, provides reason enough to pay for admission. His fancy footwork is one of those energizing dance breaks that churns up an eruption of cheers. And who doesn't love a big musical number with dancing on tables and chairs?
There honestly isn't a member of the company who doesn't earn an ovation. It's truly a company production. Yet, Daniel J. Maldonado is every bit a leading man. He plays the organizer of the resistance and the romantic lead, Jack Kelly. Yes, that's Christian Bale's role in the film, but Maldonado has a charm all his own. He's enthusiastic, genuine, and generous to his fellow actors. His voice is smooth and moving and hits a sweet note in Don't Come A-Knocking when Jack tries to swoon the career-focused Katherine Plumber.
Erin Weaver is strong and steady as the rookie reporter who is looking to escape the arts beat for hard news. She is fully present in her bullish pursuit of the story and she's a natural at being a maternal figure to the lost boys of the newspaper business. Weaver is a little more wishy-washy on romance and never seems fully committed to surrendering to love. Vocally, though, she is spot on and gives the first act a morale boost and momentum with the tongue twister Watch What Happens.
Jack is flanked by a ragtag group of child-workers who have to unify to fight off the price hikes of newspaper magnates cutting into their meager profits. Joe Montoya commits to a physically difficult role in a dance-heavy show as the disabled Crutchie. Ethan Van Slyke (Davey) is smart as a preppy do-gooder who just can't grasp the con-game of being a successful newsie. Josiah Smothers as his younger brother Les, however, has no trouble pulling punches. Smothers is so adorable and professional, it's difficult not to pinch his cheeks as he runs through the audience for his cues. There isn't a word, step, or punchline he fumbles.
The adults in NEWSIES don't get as much play, but there are a couple of standouts. Nova T. Payton is an absolute gem as the sultry and sophisticated Medda Larkin. Payton elevates every production she's a part of, and NEWSIES is no exception. She is filled with flare and punctuates That's Rich with gusto. Washington area celebrity Edward Gero makes a big impression in a relatively small role. He fills up the looming presence of greedy and scheming villain Joseph Pulitzer. Both performers are reminders of the rich pool of talented performers we're blessed with in the DMV.
If you can forgive a plot that skims the headlines and a few golly-gee punchlines, NEWSIES delivers that big-budget Broadway feel. It's a holiday winner for families packed with the flash bam power of a vintage newspaper camera.
Running Time: 2 hours and 15 minutes, with one intermission.
Performances of NEWSIES run through December 29 at Arena Stage. For tickets call 202-488-3300, or visit: arenastage.org.