Not since the Jets and the Sharks leapt onto the stage and snapped their fingers in “West Side Story” has there been a musical in which dance has played such an altogether thrilling, galvanic role as it does in “Newsies.”
When: Through Aug/ 7
Where: Cadillac Palace Theater, 151 W. Randolph
Tickets: $35 – $100
Info: (800) 77-2000; www.BroadwayInChicago.com
Run time: 2 hours and 30 minutes, with one intermission
But the show’s ensemble of more than a dozen bravura young men — who perform Tony Award-winner Christopher Gattelli’s wildly inventive choreography so brilliantly throughout this Disney musical — are not the only “movers” here. “Newsies,” now back in Chicago in a truly sensational national touring production for an all too brief run at the Cadillac Palace Theatre through Aug. 7, is in a state of perpetual motion. Every element of this show is infused with the dynamism of New York as it is about to enter the 20th century — from the three steel, Erector-set-like towers (inspired work of set designer Tobin Ost) that swivel into multiple configurations and become the perilous urban jungle gym for its impossibly fleet and fearless cast, to the dynamic use of black-and-white projections (originally devised by Sven Ortel), that operate almost like window shades and winningly capture the feel of the city in that period.
Apart from “The Lion King” (which still reigns as the grandest beast in the Broadway jungle),”Newsies” is the most beguiling of all the musicals in the ever-expanding Disney canon — a work with a fierce social conscience, a fine sense of history, vivid characters, a youthful romance between too wildly willful people, and a wonderfully nostalgic appreciation for those golden days when newspapers ruled. (Granted, I bring considerable prejudice to that last item.)
Based on the true story of the Newsboy Strike of 1899 in New York — in which something of a modern day Children’s Crusade took shape as the exploited orphans and street kids who sold William Randolph Hearst’s powerful paper, The World, unionized to demand a fair deal from the publishing mogul — “Newsies” is a story of a rebellion that could easily be seen as something of a companion piece to the more recent “Hamilton.” Its richly tuneful score by composer Alan Menken and lyricist Hack Feldman, and its feminist-infused book by Harvey Fierstein (based on the film penned by Bob Tzudiker and Noni White), come with banner headlines proclaiming the need for unity of action, and fair treatment for the poor and disabled who want to work for a living wage.
Director Jeff Calhoun has forged a perfect synchrony with Gattelli’s breathtaking big numbers — from “Carrying the Banner” to the astounding “Seize the Day,” the dance spectacular near the end of the first act that creates such an ecstatic feeling you could easily pack it up there and then, and slap on the headline: “Better Than Ever.”
Leading the fight in the marathon role of Jack Kelly — the maverick orphaned newsboy with a short fuse, a fierce sense of injustice, and an artistic gift that will finally be recognized — is Joey Barreiro, an actor of easy appeal whose naturalistic acting, powerful voice, fine sense of timing and good looks prove a most winning combination.
Joining forces with Kelly is the indomitable lame boy, Crutchie (zesty work by Andy Richardson); Davey (a fine turn by Stephen Michael Langton), the working-class Jewish boy who actually has a family and education, and undergoes a transformation as he becomes the union theorist; and Davey’s feisty kid brother, Les (Turner Birthisel (a nine-year-old who knows how to command the stage). Stealing Jack’s heart is Katherine (the steely, power-voiced Morgan Keene), who is determined to forge her career as a journalist in a man’s world (and who is not quite who she seems to be). And offering him encouragement, and a hiding place, is Meda Larkin (Chicago-bred Aisha de Haas, who stops the show with her performance of “That’s Rich”), the sassy vaudeville singer and theater owner who has friends in high places.
Neatly limned portrayals of supporting characters include: Steve Blanchard as the greedy, manipulative Pulitzer; Michael Gorman as Mr. Jacobi, the waiter at a Jewish deli where they boys hang out; and Kevin Carolan as Theodore Roosevelt, then governor of New York.
But with their fearsome balletic and tap technique, terrific acrobatic skills and resounding voices, it is the newsies (dressed in knickers and caps, with slouchy muslin newsboy bags slung around their necks, courtesy of costume designer Jess Goldstein), who are the true engine of this show. Bravos to them all, and to a show whose message feels like such an ideal fit for this election season.