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‘Newsies’ a musical that can make the presses roll

“Newsies,” which opened Friday at the Oriental Theater in an altogether phenomenal national touring edition — one that in many ways outshines the Broadway original — is a musical about how the forces of social change can begin to gather momentum, and how, against all the odds, the underdogs can sometimes even manage to emerge triumphant.

The fact that the motor for change happens to be a small army of mostly homeless kids who band together to create what one observer dubs “a children’s crusade” certainly generates a whole lot of good will. The fact that the story is told primarily through spectacular ensemble dancing — by a corps of 16 seemingly tireless boys who possess superb ballet, tap, acrobatic and gymnastic skills, and who can act and sing up a storm in the bargain — is enough to drive the audience into a state of complete exhilaration. And the further fact that it all unfolds on a stage whose nerve-jangling, Erector-set-like scenery by Tobin Ost (embellished by Scen Ortel’s artful projections) moves with almost the same bravura fluidity as the dancers who clamber over it only adds to the excitement.


Highly recommended

When: Through Jan. 4

Where: Oriental Theater, 24 W. Randolph

Tickets: $35-$110

Info: (800) 775-2000; www.BroadwayInChicago

Run time: 2 hours and 30 minutes, with one intermission

Based on the Disney film, with a punchy, anthemic score by Alan Menken, crisp, evocative lyrics by Jack Feldman, and a book by Harvey Fierstein that gets right to the “Noo Yawk” heart of matters, the show has been seamlessly directed by Jeff Calhoun and choreographed by Tony Award-winning Christopher Gattelli with enough fire and force to light up a whole neighborhood of tenements.

If you love dance and yearn for those “West Side Story” days, and if you still believe in tangible newspapers and the presses that roll them out, this is the musical for you. If, despite your Chicago roots, you are fascinated by the crazy mix of grit and grandeur, optimism and corruption that defined turn-of-the-century New York (including that special borough of Brooklyn), “Newsies” will get your blood racing, and it will race even faster if you still believe the union movement was a formidable force for good. Finally, if you are a sucker for a love story between two feisty people from different sides of the tracks, this musical can very happily satisfy that craving, too.

Inspired by the true story of the Newsboy Strike of 1899, “Newsies” is set in motion when publishing titans Joseph Pulitzer, William Randolph Hearst and others found themselves with diminishing profits as readership dwindled after the Spanish American War. Pulitzer decided to balance his books on the backs of the already impoverished — the newsboys who hawked his papers on the city streets — forcing them to pay a dime more per 100 papers bought from his dealers, and refusing to buy back those that remained unsold.

Jack Kelly (the easily charismatic Dan DeLuca), a natural leader and gifted artist who dreams of escaping New York and going West to Santa Fe, decides a rebellious strike action is in order. The other newsboys, including his beloved crippled pal, Crutchie (a most winning Zachary Sayle), are skeptical, knowing that scabs and enforcers are ready to pummel them. Also wary is Davey (expertly played by Jacob Kemp), the educated kid and the only one with two parents, as well as a game-for-anything little brother, Les (adorable, hugely talented Vincent Crocilla, a spotlight-stealing 9-year-old). But Davey, whose dad was injured at work and tossed out without compensation, gradually sees the light and joins Jack as the union philosopher.

Enter Katherine (Stephanie Styles, whose beautiful voice and easy pluck are especially beguiling in her solo with a typewriter, “Watch What Happens”). A proto-feminist hellbent on escaping the social beat, she gets the first big story about the strike on the front page of the Sun. The edgy chemistry between Katherine and Jack is not to be denied, though there is more to this part of the story than should be revealed here.

Swirling around these characters are larger-than-life figures of the period, both real and fictional, including the rich and powerful burlesque club owner Medda Larkin (flamboyant, belt-voiced Angela Grovey); the tyrannical, profit-obsessed Pulitzer (Steve Blanchard) and Teddy Roosevelt (Kevin Carolan), then governor of New York.

But it is the newsboys, with their boundless energy, sensational technique and palpable sense of camaraderie, who are the real stars here. And their names should be in lights — or at least in bold, with a headline “above the fold.”