Dallas — There’s something about a bunch of boys dancing. It’s not, perhaps, as irresistible as watching puppies play…but almost. All that young energy busting loose, leaping and tumbling, knocking together and bouncing away—and always, a percussion of feet that can make the heart pound.
In the Broadway Series at the AT&T Performing Arts Center’s Winspear Opera House, hordes of “fansies” lined up for the opening of Newsies, shelling out happily for cute newsboy caps and “Seize the Day!” mugs. From the decibel level in the balconies, the show’s dedicated young followers were enjoying it all—and with Disney pulling out the stops for this national tour, the rest of us had a fun, foot-stomping night, too.
Newsies, of course, began as a 1992 Disney movie that fizzled at the box office—in spite of Alan Menken’s rousing songs (“King of New York,” “Carrying the Banner”) and Kenny Ortega’s energetic direction and choreography. But in the years after, the movie developed an enthusiastic following on home video—and a stage version (with some new songs from Menken and lyricist Jack Feldman, and a new book by Harvey Fierstein) premiered in 2011 at New Jersey’s Paper Mill Playhouse. The buzz from Newsies’ Jersey success was heard across the river, and the show headed straight to Broadway, where it won the 2012 Tony Awards for Best Score and Best Choreography. The musical’s lively choreography is by Christopher Gattelli, and the production is deftly handled by director Jeff Calhoun—a choreographer himself—who’s been there since the show’s premiere in New Jersey.
Newsies tells the mostly true story of an 1899 strike by New York City’s news boys—poor kids who supported themselves hawking newspapers on the streets. It’s a timely fair-labor fairy tale that could be ripped from today’s headlines—worries about police misconduct, calls for a living wage, and gaps between rich and poor at levels not seen since the days of newspaper barons like Pulitzer and Hearst.
Dan DeLuca is forceful and appealing as Jack Kelly, the teenager who dreams of leaving the mean streets for a life in “Santa Fe.” By nature, this guy is a natural leader and protector—not to mention a pretty fine artist—and when publisher Joe Pulitzer (an elegantly evil Steve Blanchard) raises the price the newsies must pay to buy “the papes” they sell, Jack is ready to battle the giant. He’s especially protective of his best friend Crutchie (a warm and funny Zachary Sayle). They’re both on the run from a city-run boys “home” called the Refuge—a place they hope never to see again.
Jack pairs up with cute-kid Les (a cheek-pinchable Vincent Crocilla on opening night, alternating with Anthony Rosenthal); he likes the little guy, and knows his sweet face will sell more papers. Les’ big brother Davey (Jacob Kemp plays him good-hearted and smart) becomes Jack’s friend, and his counselor when trouble comes. Davey knows about unions and strikes:
Wrongs will be righted
If we’re united
Let us seize the day
The newsies’ strike makes headlines in stories written by “girl” reporter Katherine (Stephanie Styles, sharp-witted and spunky), a red-headed dynamo who’s looking to ditch the society beat and cover stories she cares about. Katherine’s character replaces Denton, the movie’s original newsman. And Jack and the boys get support from caring cabaret singer Medda Larkin (Angela Grovey has a great, old-style “hit the rafters” voice), who loans them her club for a rally.
But without doubt, the greatest collective performance of the night is given by the dancers of the Newsies ensemble. Despite the occasional ballad, most of the song numbers are rousing anthems full of boyish bravado—and the muscular dancing takes all that testosterone-fueled energy straight to the heights. Too many to mention, but kudos to youse all.
The Disney design team merits a gold star, too, in a “my, they’re getting good at this” way. The grimy streets of old New York ride in on multi-level stacks of scaffolding that roll together, move apart, and change height for everything from police chases to romantic scenes to union rallies. Screens slide down on each level to make a stage-wide canvas for projections of old buildings, newspaper headlines, Katherine’s typed stories, Jack’s drawings and cartoons. And instead of making us wonder “What’s all this heavy metal doing in vintage Manhattan?” the whole effort is so slick it nearly becomes invisible—leaving us to simply take in the story. High tech, and good theater to boot.
In the 20-plus years since the movie, there’ve been songs added and subtracted—yet Menken and Feldman never stop tinkering: they wrote an especially poignant new number (“Letter from the Refuge,” sung beautifully by Sayle) just for this national tour. And there’s a plot twist or two Disney wants to keep secret…so we will.
» Read our interview with Dan DeLuca