Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Review: NEWSIES Continues to Win Audiences' Affection in LA

Original company, North American Tour of NEWSIES.
©Disney. Photos by Deen van Meer.

I already knew Disney’s Newsies had developed cult status before I saw the show because its legions of loyal “Fansies” have championed it from the very beginning. But even I wasn’t prepared for the audience’s screams of appreciation for the hard-working boys – and one girl – who form the heart of the current national tour playing at the Hollywood Pantages through September 4. 

It isn’t a surprise. Few among us can resist the chest-swelling pride we feel when the underdog wins. In many ways, the little guy represents all of us regular folk, in some form or another. Idealistic but without the resources of the rich, and often without the loud voices of the political and economic bullies, it as if one of our own has somehow breached the impenetrable fortress of the world and won.

In this case, sixteen or so street urchins prove that a little solidarity can go a long way, even if you’re only a ragtag bunch of orphans selling newspapers on the street. If you believe in your cause and don’t back down, the establishment has nothing to do but listen.

Newsies is based on the true story of an 1899 Newsboy Strike that took place in New York City. In an effort to increase their profits, newspaper owners Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst colluded to raise the price of their papers from fifty to sixty cents per hundred, which meant a significant drop in the newsies’ meager earnings. Led by one young orphan with a dream and publicized by an aspiring newspaperwoman on a mission to legitimize her writing, boys from all the boroughs across New York united and eventually achieved their goal. In the end, both sides learn the value of compromise, and that's what its really all about.

It was a musical film first, directed by Kenny Ortega and released in 1992; then a stage production, adapted by Harvey Fierstein (book), Alan Menken (music), and Jack Feldman (lyrics) that became an accidental hit, largely due to its fans. From Paper Mill Playhouse to Broadway to its still-running first national tour, the phenomenon shows no signs of diminishing.

Directed by Jeff Calhoun and choreographed by Christopher Gattelli, it pulses with heart-pumping adrenaline. Gattelli integrates dance into the story in much the same way the brilliant Michael Kidd did in musicals like Guys and Dolls and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. Newsies’ brash and exciting production numbers explode with sequences that literally defy gravity. It would be interesting to know how may backflips, split jumps, leaps, and pirouettes the production actually contains. This is definitely a show for musical theatre geeks to geek out on. Its two and a half hours fly by.

An eager enthusiasm pervades its young but undeniably gifted cast. Each of the boys reveals a unique personality that humanizes his plight. Head newsboy Jack Kelly’s (Joey Barreiro) swagger meets its match in the dry humor of Katherine’s (Morgan Keene) verbal takedowns. Their slow burn of a romance doesn’t exist in the film but creates a welcome counterpoint to the feverishly propulsive pacing of the stage production. Keene has a lovely Disney princess singing voice but could do with a little less singsong cadence in her speech pattern.

Morgan Keene and Joey Barreiro

Kelly’s optimistic best bud, Crutchie (Andy Richardson), has a bum leg but he still moves like lightning across the stage, until he’s beaten up by the authorities and lands in the Refuge, an institution that is no refuge for the poor. Davy (Stephen Michael Langton) may not have brawn but he does have brains and a sincere desire to help his struggling family while tough guy Anthony Zas (Spot Conlin, leader of the Brooklyn boys) is the don’t-mess-with-me back-up the striking Newsies desperately need.

Aisha de Haas, as singer Medda Larkin, runs the club where Kelly hides out when the authorities are hot on his trail and it is there we learn of his artistic abilities as a painter. She’s as close to a mother as this orphan will ever get and she sings with a ballsy lilt that is a delight, outfitted in a hot pink glittery feathered gown. Oh, what a gal. Steve Blanchard’s (Joseph Pulitzer) deep baritone voice thunders condescendingly throughout.

Still, the cast is not without vocal issues. Intonation is questionable at times and there is a lack of polish in individual voices that tend to overreach high notes but that is largely forgivable given the non-stop athletics of the show. Newsies’ real power is its ensemble work. Every time the cast comes together as a cohesive unit (whether vocally or physically), it soars. In this musical, the whole always is greater than the sum of its parts and the impact of their ensemble scenes and dances creates a showstopping behemoth of audience pleasure.

The cast of Newsies

Tobin Obst’s massive 3-tiered scenic design of intertwining steel New York fire escapes overlooks the city against a rich watercolor sky, transforming into a variety of bleak pre-twentieth century interiors and exteriors with precision. Jess Goldstein’s costumes, complete with newspaper bags that go from functional work attire to spinning dance props, also help define the characters with their subtle touches – an undershirt over bulging muscles or a dirty Baker Boy cap pulled down in defiance, plus a wide variety of tweed garments the boys can easily dance in.

With the exuberance of youth on its side and a story whose core issue of fairness is as relatable as ever, Newsies continues to impress with its wow factor. Grab a seat now because it only runs through Labor Day weekend and its worth every penny!

August 30 - September 4, 2016
Hollywood Pantages Theatre
6233 Hollywood Blvd.
Los Angeles, 90028

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