'Newsies': Film flop turned hit musical zooms onto Dr. Phillips Center stage

Fresh from Broadway, the first national tour of Disney’s Newsies came leaping and spinning into Orlando’s Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts on Tuesday night, Jan. 27, to a rapturous audience response. I was never a rabid fan of the 1992 film flop turned cult favorite, and I’d only just gotten the show’s earworm anthem “Seize the Day” dislodged from my brain after my last visit to Disneyland Resort, where it serves as the theme song for California Adventure’s Red Car News Boys show. But I grew up in New Jersey minutes from the Paper Mill Playhouse, where director Jeff Calhoun’s stage adaption premiered before moving to Manhattan for a surprisingly successful Broadway run.

So it was with great anticipation that I entered the world of Jack Kelly (Dan DeLuca, in Christian Bale’s screen role), a newspaper vendor who leads a revolt against publisher Joseph Pulitzer (Steve Blanchard, embodying Ayn Randian arrogance) and the other powers-that-be in late 19th-century New York. Jack, as passionately personified by DeLuca in extra-angsty Andrew Garfield mode, is egged into organizing a union by his egghead pal Davey (Jacob Kemp, nicely nebbishy); Medda Larkin (Angela Grovey, recalling a young Nell Carter), the maternal matron of a burlesque theater; and Katherine (Stephanie Styles, the epitome of proto-feminist pluck), an ambitious journalist aching to break out of the society pages. The supporting cast supplies a surfeit of Oliver-worthy urchins, including the cheerfully crippled Crutchie (Zachary Sayle) and Davey’s show-stealing little brother, Les (Vincent Crocilla on opening night, alternating with Anthony Rosenthal).

Alan Menken’s score, which includes “King of New York,” “Santa Fe,” “The World Will Know” and “Once and For All” from the film, plus a few newly composed songs, really has less than a dozen tunes in total, with several reprised repeatedly. Jack Feldman’s lyrics are more than serviceable, especially in “Watch What Happens,” Katherine’s Sondheim-lite patter song, but Harvey Fierstein’s book (based on Bob Tzudiker and Noni White's screenplay) doesn’t confront this true(ish) story’s tragic reality with the fire I’d hoped. It’s ironic that populist pro-labor propaganda is being produced by a company with a history of union conflict over their theme parks; at least this tour is Equity, unlike the Beauty and the Beast production coming in May. But perhaps undermining the working class while pretending to promote it is precisely the point: The great “victory” celebrated in the jubilant finale is that the striking newsies are returning to child labor, only slightly less screwed-over than they were at the start.

On the other hand, maybe the proletariat does get the last laugh, thanks (inadvertently) to director Calhoun and Tony-winning choreographer Christopher Gattelli’s insistence on defining every foot stomp, hat adjustment and eye roll with the drilled precision of a world-class color guard. The entire cast is astoundingly energetic and athletic, tap dancing on tables and sliding on scraps of newspaper with polished playfulness, but every moment – musical or dramatic – is delivered so emphatically that I could barely breathe in my seventh-row seat. Even Tobin Ost’s gargantuan Tinkertoy set and Sven Ortel’s projections (adapted by Daniel Brodie) were overwhelming to the eye from the orchestra, though Jess Goldstein’s period costumes looked great up close. However, I’m certain it all looked spectacular from the mezzanine, which is where the cast was directing most of their mugging.

If I sound somewhat sour on the show, that’s only because I expected more; it’s highly entertaining but shallow, and seemingly stitched together from more memorable musicals like Rent, Les Miz, West Side Story and Annie (Teddy Roosevelt even shows up, playing the same deus ex machina role that FDR does for Daddy Warbucks). Even so, Newsies' Orlando run is practically sold out. If you can snag a cheap ticket in the back balcony, you’ll have a better seat than the swells down front.  

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