Review: NEWSIES, Troubadour Wembley Park Theatre

Spectacle trumps story in a venue that neutralises key elements of musical theatre

By: Dec. 09, 2022
Review: NEWSIES, Troubadour Wembley Park Theatre
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Review: NEWSIES, Troubadour Wembley Park Theatre Review: NEWSIES, Troubadour Wembley Park Theatre Newsies arrives on the London stage at last, 123 years on from the strike that inspired it, 30 years on from the flop Hollywood movie and ten years on from the hit Broadway show. Was it worth the wait? Not, I venture, if staged at this extraordinary and unsympathetic venue.

If you can negotiate a variety of industrial actions currently underway to trek up to Wembley, you'll see a makeshift union calling a wildcat strike that is both widely supported by the public and achieves its objectives - not exactly the sentiment one might expect given the extensive Disney branding. But who doesn't love a young, handsome, charismatic hero, a glamorous, peppy heroine with just enough agency of her own and a gang of (alas largely generic) buffed up street urchins, who might be a bit rough around the edges, but they're hardly Fagin's notorious crew?

Jack Kelly is the teenage leader of the Newsies, the paupers who flog papers on the streets of late 19th century New York. When Joseph Pulitzer, publishing baron, raises the price he charges his hawkers for his paper, they refuse to take his stock, rally across the five boroughs and a stand-off ensues. Despite the usual capitalist tactics to break the strike, the little guys (literally), helped by the governor, future president Teddy Roosevelt, win out and a spit and shake of the hands is enough to leave everyone living happy ever after. Or so we're invited to believe, but the kids are still on starvation wages. This is an American commercial musical, so such matters are glossed over and Harvey Fierstein's book ensures that no horses were frightened in the making of this production.

It's all delivered with tremendous energy, so much that it can be almost too much to watch, especially in the long first half which surely has at least one mass dance number too many - curiously so as the second half has at least one too few. The young ensemble fill the vast stage with director / choreographer, Matt Cole's mix of streetdance, ballet and acrobatics, making up with enthusiasm what they lack in precision. There are times when the narrative, never pacy, more or less gives way, and the generation who grew up on Strictly get the spectacle they clearly wanted on opening night - the rest of us wait for the plot to plod on.

Michael Ahomka-Lindsay and Bronte Barbe make for a handsome couple, but it's an almost impossible job for an actor to project the charisma the character of Jack Kelly demands right around what feels like half an aircraft hangar. At least a couple of times, despite my plumb seat, I caught myself looking for a big screen that wasn't there - as if at a gig. Both leads sing well in their solo numbers, as does Moya Angela in the underwritten part of Medda Larkin, owner of a vaudeville theatre and mother figure for Jack, but you can't risk relying on the intimate connection such numbers need if they're to be integrated into their development rather than stand alone cameos.

No individual singer stands much of a chance in the big set pieces like "Seize The Day" and "Carrying The Banner" as the mic'ed-up vocals are lost in so unforgiving an acoustic space. Musical Theatre 101 requires Jack Feldman's lyrics to be heard and too often they're amplified too loud (possibly to compete with Alan Menken's music which is also too loud) and just bounce off the hard surfaces, the effect of which makes for a mushy sound when it should be crisp. Okay for a rock concert; not so much for in a theatrical form that demands that songs carry the narrative and establish mood and motivation.

Whether you will enjoy the show will depend on how you prioritise the technical elements of musical theatre's storytelling against its spectacle and where you stand on a political struggle that ends in a happy compromise that changes very little. I suspect the phrase might be, "Come for the singing; stay for the dancing" - I'd certainly have preferred a lot more of the former in a show that stretches over two and a half hours with its interval. Wrap up warm too.

Newsies is at the Troubadour Wembley Park Theatre until 16 April

Photo Credit: Johan Persson



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