Dallas — With a predictable plot and a pleasantly conventional score, the Alan Menken/Harvey Fierstein musical Newsies is a sure crowd pleaser—which was the case at Friday night at the Majestic Theatre, at the opening of a quick three-day, four-show run of a production by Lyric Stage.
It’s easy to understand why the sold-out audience for this G-rated show roared its approval—even this jaded critic tapped his foot and reached for a hankie a time or two for this sweetly anesthetized musical version of the historic newsboys strike of 1899. Originally created as a live-action Disney film in 1992 (and considered a flop at that time) Newsies resurrected as a Broadway show in 2011 and has been much more successful on the live stage than on the silver screen. (It was beat for the Best Musical Tony Award that year by Once, which also happens to be playing now, in a production at Theatre Three.) Along with the history lesson, there’s a spunky small boy, a cripple, a villainous newspaper baron, and an entirely made-up love affair between the historical strike leader Jack Kelly and a fictional Katherine Pulitzer.
The setting, during a strike of newsboys in the booming culture of old New York, naturally calls for big choral-dance numbers; indeed, Newsies is, more than anything else, a showcase for a company of male dancers, with copious opportunities for virtuoso solo display and muscular precision ensemble work. And that is where this production falters.
Top-notch vocal and orchestral presentation of standard shows has long been the guiding force and, indeed, the raison d’etre of Lyric Stage. While Newsies certainly benefits from this treatment, this show is essentially a choral ballet that stands or falls on the strength of the big numbers. The thin plot and solidly crafted score are basically the ribbon on which the big dance numbers hang.
Rather than a fully professional ensemble of dancers, however, this production relies on a team of professional, semi-professional, and very advanced student performers. Within the standards of a good college production, the big scenes come off convincingly, with plenty of kicks and fancy footwork. But the razor-sharp ensemble precision and jaw-dropping moves that made Newsies a successful Broadway show (and which carried much of the weight in the original movie version) are absent here. Choreographer Katherine Quinn, to her credit, creates dances that engage the audience without over-taxing the dancers, with a non-stop swirl of motion. And the show doubtless gives great experience and good résumé lines for a number of promising young performers. But Lyric Stage should advance the same level of professionalism in its dance sequences that it demands from its singers and musicians and should either develop a stable of dancers at that level or stick to less dance-intensive material.
(Incidentally, though contradictory to the tradition of a mostly male chorus for past major productions of Newsies, the presence of females in the dance ensemble was a positive and historically accurate gesture, as many of the “newsboys” of old New York were girls.)
Also on the plus side, Menken’s score, which follows all the rules of a well-constructed musical show, clip along nicely on opening night under the guidance of music director Bruce Greer, who leads a full, professional-level pit orchestra in successfully selling the tuneful momentum of the score.
Anthony Fortino swaggers handsomely through the demanding central role of the young strike-leader Jack Kelly, bringing a grand Broadway tenor voice as well as an impressive emotional range. Opposite Fortino in the role of Katherine, Jocelyn Hansen likewise brings an earnest presence and an attractive voice that holds its beauty even when belting. Parker Gray limps convincingly and sings with the requisite pathos in his one solo, “Letter from the Refuge,” and Sonny Franks looms with dignified menace as Joseph Pulitzer. Felicia Benton towers memorably as the kind-hearted but commanding burlesque theater matron Medda.
The amplification, however, is at best uneven, with volume levels varying from one actor to another, and with much of the spoken text and song lyrics, leaving viewers straining to understand many of the show’s quick witticisms.
Director Noah Putterman keeps the action flowing across the uncredited but effective sets, with the late-19th-century costumes by Erica Peterman ranging from the wealthy upper crust of Pulitzer and his cronies to the ragtag newsies of New York. And, while disappointing in the failure of the sound system and the below-par dance numbers, this version of Newsies is clearly delighting a sold-out audience spanning several generations.