Newsies is a frolicking, joyous musical with a healthy dose of “kid power:” the perfect recipe for families this holiday season. Based on the original Disney film and drawing from the real-life “Newsboy Strike” of 1899 in New York City’s 5 boroughs, the musical follows the fictional ringleader of the newsboy rebellion, Jack Kelly (Daniel J. Maldonado) and his gang of scrappy, bedraggled street urchins.
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Living on the street, the boys hawk “pape” to scrounge out the meagerest of existences, often through scandalous, fabricated headlines. When the penny-pinching greed of newspaper mogul Joseph Pulitzer (Edward Gero) threatens to drive the boys (and, here, girls) further into famine, they revolt. Enter Katherine Plumber (Erin Weaver), a well-coiffed and -heeled reporter willing to walk headfirst into the fray to aid the cause (and to cover her first “real” news story and finally break out of the society pages).
Staged in the round (or square) in Arena’s Finchandler theatre, Set Designer Ken Macdonald includes the audience in the action. Clotheslines draped with antique white linens billow above the heads of the uppermost rows, a romantic perimeter establishing the 19th century inner-city New York neighborhood. The performers scamper up and down the various staircases that divide the audience sections, and even occasionally claim a seat in the audience itself. Macdonald’s impressively technical set includes an entire ‘room’ that rises from, and recedes into, the stage floor and towering wheeled staircases where actors perch dizzyingly-high above the audiences’ heads, each piece moving fluidly in and out of the action in magical fashion.
Maldonado, as Jack, is a true find of a performer: charismatic, broodingly handsome—a loveable scoundrel. Even smothered under a thick New York accent, Maldonado’s classically trained, gorgeously round baritone comes through. Most of all Maldonado throws himself into the role with gusto, capturing Jack’s competing tough outer shell and soft underbelly without resorting to cliché.
Choreographer Parker Esse (Oklahoma!, Anything Goes) delivers stunning choreography, beautifully mixing the happy hitch-kicks and acrobatics of a hyper-energetic young cast with elegant ballet sequences that showcase the dancers’ skill and control, moving in a graceful, synchronized slow-motion. In in a scene-stealing moment, dancer Luke Spring (as Elmer) delivers a breathtaking, virtuoso tap number unlike anything I’ve seen, bringing the audience to its feet.
Nova Y. Payton, as Medda Larkin – owner of the local burlesque parlor (portrayed here with a Disney-esque chastity suitable for all ages)—similarly stuns, with a rich and seamless mixed belt and attitude to match. The adorable ‘brother’ duo of Ethan Van Slyke as Davy Jacobs, and Josiah Smothers, as his young brother Les, are so winningly charming, you might first miss their truly impressive technical abilities in both voice and dance. Although high school and elementary school-aged, respectfully, they hold their own and make their voices heard amongst the seasoned professional cast.
In a post-show speech, Newsies director and Arena Stage Artistic Director Molly Smith took the stage to deliver warm compliments to the cast and crew and to give insight into her inspiration behind the production. Smith spoke to how the “children’s movement” that inspired the show is echoed in today’s youth movements, citing the students of Stoneman Douglas High School’s grassroots campaign for gun control, and Swedish teen activist Greta Thunberg, who inspired children’s movements around the world to demand government action on climate change.
Smith noted that each of these movements centered on the idea that there comes a time in each generation when the older generation—at the very height of its power—must step aside so that the younger generation can be heard and left to shape its own future. While that particular lesson comes through in Arena’s production, the ties to current youth-led political and social movements did not. What could have been a modern take on the David and Goliath story instead hewed to a very “Disney” theme in which everyone gets a happy ending.
Disney’s Newsies closes December 29, 2019. Details and tickets
Or do they? Would a modern audience think Jack “happy” in his new job, the reward for all of his sacrifice? And wouldn’t they find it insulting that Katherine’s desire to intervene and help lift up the working class is not enough justification for her actions, she has to also get the guy? The unlikely romance between Jack and Katherine wedged into the (slightly too long) second act—and Mencken’s out-of-place (though beautifully rendered) lover’s ballad take the fire out of the otherwise charged plot. Weaver is perfectly wonderful as Katherine, with a chin-up assertiveness and a gorgeous lilting soprano. Nonetheless it felt like her talents were underutilized and that more could have been done to make her a heroine for our times, and to thread together the history of children’s movements that inspired Smith’s production.
As a tribute to the original film and Broadway musical, Newsies is beautifully acted, directed and choreographed and showcases a deeply talented and promising young cast. Running through December 29, it makes for a good ‘ole fashion treat for audiences, and a great family entertainment.
Newsies. Music by Alan Menken. Lyrics by Jack Feldman. Book by Harvey Fierstein. Based on the Disney Film written by Bob Tzudiker and Noni White. Directed by Molly Smith. Choreographed by Parker Esse. Music Direction by Laura Bergquist. Featuring Rory Boyd, Matthew Davies, Javier Del Pilar, Wyn Delano, Christian Douglas, Edward Gero, Brett-Marco Glauser, Hazel Hay, Michael Hewitt, Michael John Hughes, Carol Denise Jones, Daniel J. Maldonado, Tomas Matos, Joe Montoya, Emre Ocak, Shiloh Orr, Nova Y. Payton, Tanner Pflueger, Bridget Riley, Tro Shaw, Thomas Adrian Simpson, Jamie Smithson, Josiah Smothers, Lucy Spring, Luke Spring, Ethan Van Slyke, Erin Weaver, Chaz Wolcott and Kelli Youngman. Produced by Arena Stage . Reviewed by Meaghan Hannan Davant.