Before television, even before radio, newspapers were the ‘social media,” the primary source of information for the public. Back in the day “dailies” were hawked by street urchins shouting outrageous tabloid-type jabber unrelated to the headlines (“Extra, Extra! Read all about it….baby born with two heads!”). It was an attention getter, a selling point for these orphaned youngsters living in group homes generally at the mercy of unscrupulous officials (think the Dead End Kids and Bowery Boys series and musicals like “Oliver” and “Annie”).
The relentlessly cheery “Newsies,” is a musical adapted from the 1992 Disney movie starring a singing, dancing Christian Bale (who knew?), Bill Pullman, Robert Duvall (a scene chewing, over the top performance as Joseph Pulitzer), and Ann-Margret. A crictical and box office flop, the flick survives as a mini-cult favorite. With a book by Harvey Fierstein (“Kinky Boots” currently playing at Toronto’s Royal Alexandra Theatre, “La Cage aux Folles”), “Newsies” is playing at the Ed Mirvish Theatre.
“Newsies” is a disarmingly unsophisticated fictional spin on the newsboys revolt of 1899 in New York when child newspaper sellers, or “newsies” go on strike because the price of “papes” (lingo for newspapers) goes up unfairly, thus reducing their puny pay. They must battle scabs and crooked bureaucrats, as well as newspaper barons Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst. In a show of solidarity these boys stood up to corporate power.
Led by the most charismatic of their tribe, the rable rousing juvenile runaway Jack Kelly (Dan DeLuca), the newsies form an impromptu union and call a strike, inciting violent repercussions, making the adults sit up and take notice. In that turn-of-the-century era kids were seen but not heard, so the revolt of the young ‘uns certainly perked up the attention of the grown ups. With sympathetic help from a well-connected reporter, the boys unite the city boroughs and expose the exploitation of the oppressed to public and political scrutiny, giving them the upper hand in negotiations.
The boys – most of them orphans “wid’ no mudder or fadder, and thus forced to woik” – are a boisterous bunch of ragamuffins who play up the accents to cartoonish effect which will either be adorable or annoying, depending on your mood. Outfitted in jaunty caps, vests and knee breeches, these plucky kids scratch out a meager living, thereby capturing audience sensititivity to their plight.
Rousing songs by Alan Menken (“Beauty and the Beast”) with lyrics by Jack Feldman, drive the high-energy dance sequences. Christopher Gattelli’s Tony-winning acrobatic choreography is contagious, although dance purists may sneer at some of the over-the-top moves. However, I feel the chorus numbers steal the show. It’s as if terpsichorian masters Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly are beaming telepathic approvals from above. The toe-tapping elements set in motion an uplifting heart and soul story told by an appealing cast with thick “Noo Yawk” accents making this reconceived version of the movie a most entertaining night out. Its a kick to watch the large cast of young, talented and skilled male dancers who swoop, tumble, cartwheel, pirouette and tap through some highly muscular dance numbers and make it look effortless. Menken’s big sound kicks in on songs like “Seize the Day” and “King of New York.” Aficionados
looking for art or subtlety in their musical theater might scoff, but for nonpurists the show’s exuberant old-fashioned charm is irresistible.
DeLuca plays strike leader Jack Kelly with a bad-boy glint and cocky street-smart swagger that almost conceals his softer side. The actor shows a smooth blend of moxie and charisma, and a dash of romance in winning the girl. She’s Katherine (Stephanie Styles), an aspiring female reporter who is independent, outspoken and savvy enough to devise a scheme that leads the strikers to a positive resolution. There’s appeal in Styles portrayal of the rookie reporter; a mixture of feminine feistyness who successfullu champions the boys’ cause as well as scoring a scoop for her paper. DeLuca and Styles have a nice second-act duet — “Something to Believe In.”
“Newsies” offers all the exuberant songs and dance moves of “Footloose” but has the advantage of a story with real-life issues, concerns and consequences.
All of this unfolds on an ingenious erector-set design which smoothly transforms into a back drop city scape, close up tenements, newspaper shipping area as well as the inner sanctum office of the villianous newspaper baron Joseph Pulitzer.
Madcap zeal and nonstop zest fires the plot, a shrewdly calculated blend of unapologetic sentiment, blank social statement and sheer moxie. “Newsies” was something of a unexpected Broadway success in 2012, though considering how its flop source material had become a cult item over the years, its crowd-pleasing stage success shouldn’t really have been unexpected, thus vindicating the Mouse House decision to mount a live adaptation.
Extra, Extra! Read all about it….”Newsies” is ‘hot’ news. This direct from Broadway production is playing at Toronto’s Ed Mirvish Theatre through August 30.
Written by: Alex Reynolds