Based on a flopped movie (and before that, on a true story), this cheeky children’s musical celebrates the values of independence, comradeship and unionization. Toto, I don’t think we’re in Disneyworld anymore.
And yet, we are. After its last two less-than-impressive efforts – The Little Mermaid, Tarzan – the company’s evidently decided on a new approach, and the result – Newsies – though still indebted to Walt, may signal a new renascence for Disney – or at least for its theatrical productions.
Set in downtown Manhattan, circa 1899, this ebullient musical somehow manages to be one part Dickens, one part Disney and one part democratic exemplum. Tracing the story of Jack Kelly (Jeremy Jordan, West Side Story, Rock of Ages), a brash but lovable boy of the streets who ekes out a living selling newspapers, and his fellow New York “newsies,” most of them also underage orphans without anywhere to live. This coming-of-age story pits the downtrodden newsies against the ruthless free-market forces of commerce when newspaper magnate Joseph Pulitzer (John Dossett) decides to raise what he charges the kids for the “papes,” and the newsies decide to organize.
This is just an American studies dissertation waiting to be written. The intrepid kids, led by Jack, and his shy but politically astute capo, Davey (Ben Fankhauser) face class warfare, generational mistrust, cultural disparity and, of course, inter-borough rivalries. Joined by Katherine (Kara Lindsay), a young girl reporter desperate to stop writing for the society page, the newsies stumble their way toward unionization, learning a lot about solidarity – and about selling out.
So already we seem very far indeed from the Magic Kingdom. But it gets better. The lively score and elaborate dance numbers may come as no surprise – though the teen cast brings a sense of energy and fun to them that’s as exhilarating as it is entertaining. But the book is written by none other than Harvey Fierstein. So the jokes tend to be funny, the surprises startling, and the repartee as witty as teenaged boys can reasonably be expected to get. If that’s not enough to keep the older audience members enthralled, there’s a burlesque queen of questionable virtue, Medda Larkin (the fabulous Capathia Jenkins, Fame Becomes Me, Caroline or Change) who’s got a big heart and all the best songs, and a surprise appearance by then Governor of New York, a jovial Teddy Roosevelt (Kevin Carolan).
With all these charms, Newsies still has some (largely forgivable) faults. It can be emotionally manipulative, especially when the kids flee the “refuge” that serves as a prison for homeless boys or get beaten up by the cops. And it’s got more than its share of silliness. But even if it’s not Shakespeare – or Sondheim – as the newsies master media manipulation, realpolitik and their relationships with one another, it’s hard not to feel truly engaged with their triumphs as well as their tragedies.