September 12, 2018

“Newsies” Go On Strike and Entertain Audiences at Kelsey Theatre; Strong Production Shows Why the Flop Musical Film Succeeds on Stage

“NEWSIES”: Performances are underway for PinnWorth Productions’ presentation of “Newsies.” Directed by LouJ Stalsworth, the musical runs through September 16 at the Kelsey Theatre. Katherine Plumber, a mysterious reporter (Bridget Hughes, left) interviews Jack Kelly (Rob Ryan), who leads the delivery boys on strike after Joseph Pulitzer increases the cost of the newspapers to them. (Photo by Robert A. Terrano)

By Donald H. Sanborn III

On July 23, 1899, the New York Herald printed the following headline: “Newsboys’ Strike Promises Success.” That promise is fulfilled by PinnWorth Productions’ presentation of the Broadway musical Newsies, which is playing at the Kelsey Theatre. Directed by LouJ Stalsworth, this polished, energetic production demonstrates why the unsuccessful 1992 film succeeds on stage.

Having rejuvenated the genre of animated musicals with blockbusters such as The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast, Disney attempted to do the same for live-action musical films. However, Newsies was commercially unsuccessful in its theatrical release.

Nevertheless, the home video of the film found a loyal audience. The stage version initially was developed for licensing to stock and amateur companies, but after a successful run at the Paper Mill Playhouse, the show opened on Broadway in 2012. The musical won two Tony Awards that year: Best Score and Best Choreography.

The music is by Alan Menken, who conspicuously minimizes his trademark use of pastiche in favor of a driving pop score that accentuates the protagonists’ tenacity, though the rhythmic dance numbers are interspersed with anthems and ballads that prevent the show from becoming relentless.

The concise, conversational lyrics are by Jack Feldman. The book by Harvey Fierstein is adapted from the screenplay of the Disney film, written by Bob Tzudiker and Noni White. Tzudiker and White loosely based their script on events of the Newsboys’ Strike of 1899.

Joseph Pulitzer, the publisher of the New York World, attempts to outsell his competitors by increasing the newspapers’ cost to the delivery boys. The “newsies” will have to sell additional papers to avoid taking a loss.

Three delivery boys — Jack Kelly, Davey, and Davey’s younger brother, Les — hide in a vaudeville-style theater to evade the warden of the Refuge, a juvenile detention center. The theater is owned by Medda Larkin, a performer for whom Jack paints backdrops. Medda’s audience includes Katherine Plumber, a reporter who has been sent to review her act. Later we will discover that Katherine is related to an important character.

As Medda’s show continues, Jack reflects on his budding feelings for Katherine. With its overlapping melodic lines, this dual number, “I Never Planned on You/Don’t Come a-Knocking,” is intricate.

Upon learning about Pulitzer’s price increase, Jack leads the other delivery boys on strike. Katherine undertakes to write an article about the strike, in the hopes of attaining recognition as a serious journalist.

After a skirmish between the strikers and the police, Crutchie — Jack’s disabled friend — is arrested and taken to the Refuge. Unwilling to endanger any of the other boys, Jack is tempted to end the strike and leave New York for Santa Fe. Later, he must decide whether or not to accept a compromise that is offered by Pulitzer.

Fierstein’s changes included combining two characters into one to create Katherine. Similarly, Menken and Feldman cut two songs written for Medda, replacing them with “That’s Rich.” They also added several new songs, including “The Bottom Line” for Pulitzer, who never sings in the film.

Inescapably, several characters are archetypes that have been seen elsewhere in musicals. The earnest, ambitious Katherine echoes Betty Schaefer, the wholesome love interest for the protagonist in Sunset Boulevard. The spunky urchin Les, who in this production is portrayed with impish charm by Camryn Burniston, recalls Gavroche in Les Miserables, as well as the title character in Oliver!

However, it is a mark of the stage musical’s success that it is possible to be aware of this, and still be moved by the show and its characters, particularly Jack.

As a musical theater character, the feisty, egalitarian Jack recalls the protagonists of shows by George M. Cohan, the playwright, songwriter, and performer whose Broadway career started just a few years after Newsies takes place. An example is Cohan’s 1904 musical Little Johnny Jones, in which the title character is determined to prove that an American jockey can win an English derby. Jack shares that character’s fortitude, though his motives are more altruistic.

Rob Ryan’s performance as Jack makes clear that the character is tough because to survive, he must mask his vulnerabilities. Ryan’s performance of “Santa Fe,” Jack’s impassioned signature ballad at the end of the first act, is the highlight it needs to be, underscoring the character’s mixture of anger and optimism.

Bridget Hughes is amusing in “Watch What Happens,” in which Katherine is initially daunted by the task of writing about the strike; the number bears a slight resemblance to “Getting Married Today,” which is sung by a neurotic bride in the Stephen Sondheim musical Company. Hughes’ delicate soprano is pretty in “Something to Believe In,” a duet for Katherine and Jack.

Peter Sauer makes the condescending Pulitzer into an entertaining antagonist, largely through the use of an exaggerated accent mixed with an oily demeanor. As the flamboyant Medda, Mimi B. Francis stops the show with her charismatic performance of “That’s Rich.” In this she is helped by a sleek, bright red dress that is one of costume designer Kate Pinner’s most alluring creations. The entire cast is tireless in its performance of the acrobatic choreography by Koren Zander.

Conducted by François Suhr, the orchestra offers a smooth delivery of the crisp arrangements by Danny Troob. The choral performances are equally satisfying, particularly in the anthem, “Seize the Day.”

The video design by Robert A. Terrano cinematically establishes the settings, and uses text to illustrate the concept of Katherine and the delivery boys making the news rather than merely reporting or selling it. Terrano’s set, which divides part of the stage into square compartments, aids Stalsworth in exploring the show’s theme.

Stalsworth’s staging evokes the late Broadway director Gower Champion, who used compartments to show teenagers in separate rooms having telephone conversations in Bye Bye Birdie; or passengers in separate train cars in 42nd Street. Stalsworth uses scaffolding to accentuate a central message of Newsies: to effect social change for the common good, isolation must be replaced by solidarity.

When Jack is tempted to abandon the strike after Crutchie’s arrest, he sings “Santa Fe” in a compartment. Conversely, in “Brooklyn’s Here,” delivery boys from the different boroughs emerge from the scaffolding to join each other on center stage. Eventually, strikers enter front of house, bringing the audience into the action.

Ultimately, this element of community is something the film could not deliver, but the stage show can—and does. Certain musicals work in either medium: The Sound of Music, Chicago, and The Lion King all are successful examples. The story of Newsies, however, is one that requires the connection between performers and audiences that happens in live theater.