Let’s hear it for the boys! Overflowing with vitality that you can feel in the last row, an extraordinary “Newsies” takes flight on the expansive Muny stage.
Exuding charm and can-do American spirit, this seventh and final show of the 99th season is one to savor and celebrate.
Worthy of a banner headline proclaiming “WOW!” in bold letters, this dynamic premiere gets right to the heart of the matter, uniting an energetic and enthusiastic ensemble who project their tight-knit bond at every turn.
Obviously, the vigorous dance numbers are the show’s signature. Christopher Galletti won a Tony for his athletic and robust choreography in the 2012 Broadway musical adaptation of Disney’s 1992 cult hit movie. Now, director-choreographer Chris Bailey has effectively used The Muny space to showcase his exceptional dancers.
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“Carrying the Banner,” “Seize the Day,” “The World Will Know” and “King of New York” are vibrant numbers, displaying a jagged edge that suits the characters, an earthy and organic full-court press. It’s that same feeling when you saw the gangs bust out moves in “West Side Story” for the first time (or for the 50th, especially Bailey’s exhilarating work in 2013 here).
You don’t want to miss the jubilant curtain call — the USA men’s gymnastics team has nothing on these guys.
The well-cast triple-threat Newsies are truly a band of brothers — a championship underdog team — emanating strength and endurance, and one-for-all attitudes. They have fun with the accents too — their zest for playing cheeky kids is infectious.
The Little Guy vs. The Man story, inspired by the Newsboys Strike of 1899, concerns a group of ragamuffins surviving on the meager earnings from selling newspapers on the streets of Manhattan, including Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World, The Herald and The Sun.
When the greedy publisher raises the price that “newsies” must pay for the paper, cutting their profits and boosting his, streetwise orphan Jack Kelly galvanizes his ragtag rebels and misfits.
Their strike, while dealing blows, ultimately shed light on unfair labor practices. In a larger context, that’s when the union movement gained ground as our country swelled with American Dream-seeking immigrants, who became the workforce for the Industrial Revolution.
Theater icon Harvey Fierstein recognized this as he reshaped the script, focusing on the theme’s greater purpose, and his social justice message is loud and clear.
“Newsies” may take place in a bygone era, but even in today’s digital age, its equal rights and right vs. might themes resonate.
Bailey made the book far less of a hindrance than the 2016 national tour at the Fox and more than a bridge between catchy songs and dance.
With Alan Menken’s terrific hummable score tailor-made for the stage, his odes to the common man also emphasize the unmistakable, unquenchable American sense of purpose and pride.
Menken wrote 12 original songs for the movie, directed and choreographed by Kenny Ortega (of “Dirty Dancing” fame), and starring an 18-year-old Christian Bale. It bombed at the box office, but fans grew, thanks to VHS tapes, DVDs and TV showings.
Seven additional songs, with lyrics by Jack Feldman, were added when the stage musical was created. After eight Oscars, Menken finally won his first Tony for Best Score.
It’s a splendid, soaring score. Michael Horsley’s smooth music direction brings out the urgency in the anthems and the compassion in friendship.
In a star-making performance, Jay Armstrong Johnson dazzles. He has been memorable before, notably as Barnaby in “Hello, Dolly!” and Billy Lawlor in “42nd Street,” but seizes this opportunity to shine as a leading man, showing Jack’s endearing toughness and softness. A dreamer, too, his yearning is palpable in “Sante Fe.”
Other standouts include appealing Spencer Davis Milford as the smart go-getter Davey who handles setbacks with great aplomb, scene-stealing rookie sensation Gabriel Cytron as his adorable waif brother Les, and heart-tugging Daniel Quadrino as never-say-die Crutchie.
Quadrino’s ballad, “Letter from The Refuge,” which Menken wrote specifically for the first national tour, will leave few dry eyes.
Tessa Grady is spunky, ambitious reporter Katherine Plumber, Jack’s love interest. She’s a new character, ahead of her time and unrealistic, but a necessary vehicle for the plot. If you remember the movie, Katherine is a combination of Bill Pullman’s reporter and Jack’s girlfriend who was Davey’s sister.
She’s dandy in “Watch What Happens” and strong in their love duet, “Something to Believe In.”
As for the archetype adults, Davis Gaines imbues the villainous Pulitzer with an off-putting arrogance and pomposity that evokes gasps and laughs from the audience. He comes to understand that what is chump change to him is someone’s livelihood — well, sorta.
Ta’Rea Campbell sparkles with sass and class as nightclub owner Medda Larkin, who is sympathetic to the boys’ plight and Jack’s artistic ambitions.
Michael Harp and Kelsey Knee, both of Swansea, dance and sing with glee in the youth ensemble.
The turn-of-the-century period, in which newspapers were the only way to find out what was happening, is brought vividly to life by video designer Greg Emetaz. His sepia-toned work complements the technologically advanced scenic design by Michael Schweikardt, a seamless marvel of function and motion.
Although immersed in a different time, “Newsies” reminded me about the resilience of influential Americans during the past century, who have inspired our modern lives. I looked up Steve Jobs’ famous Apple “Think Different” campaign from 1997, often quoted as “The Crazy Ones,” when I got home. To wit:
“Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently. They’re not fond of rules. And they have no respect for the status quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them. About the only thing you can’t do is ignore them. Because they change things. They push the human race forward. And while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.”
Rah-rah to that. “Newsies” embodies those notions, and that’s a key to its staying power.
Spreading hope and cheer, “Newsies” warms hearts and coaxes smiles on kids and adults alike. It’s a boffo crowd-pleasing grand finale, and if it makes someone buy a newspaper, huzzah!
Way to ramp up the anticipation for next summer’s centennial season, Muny! Isaacson, artistic director and executive producer, told the audience opening night that they will announce the 100th anniversary line-up Oct. 12. (I’m calling one now — “Meet Me in St. Louis”).
Isaacson capped his end-of-season speech with one of his favorite final lines from one of his favorite musicals, as the Smith family attends the 1904 World’s Fair in Forest Park:
“I can’t believe it. Right here where we live — right here in St. Louis.”
At a glance
- What: “Newsies”
- When: 8:15 p.m. now through Aug. 13
- Where: The Muny
- Details: www.muny.org
- Box Office: 314-361-1900
Share your opinion
- If you missed participating in the annual survey of what shows you’d like to see next season, you can still chime in at https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/2017_Muny_Survey