Original company, North American Tour of NEWSIES. © Disney. Photo by Deen van Meer.
Newsies landed with a hard thud when it arrived in movie theaters in 1992, starring a young Christian Bale. The movie musical genre was still waiting to be revitalized (that happened ten years later with musical crime comedy Chicago), and Bale provided no star wattage. The film gained more fans when it aired endlessly on the Disney Channel, but it was only in 2012 that it could be declared a hit, when the stage version attracted enthusiastic audiences and garnered solid reviews. The Broadway musical was also honored with two Tony Awards® for Best Score and Best Choreography. It was also nominated for Best Musical, but lost to another movie-turned-stage show, Once.
Now on the first national tour, Newsies arrives in Texas as sweet-tasting as iced tea on a warm Spring day, enjoyable while it lasts but hardly anything remarkable beyond it’s jolt of energy and light refreshment. It plays in Dallas at the AT&T Performing Arts Center through May 10. Subsequent runs include San Antonio, May 12-17 at Broadway at San Antonio at the Majestic and Houston, May 19-24 through Broadway at The Hobby Center.
In fairness, the Broadway musical is more entertaining the flop film. With an almost all-male cast, Newsies could be called a testosterone-driven version of Annie. Except where that family classic left a lasting impression for generations, Newsies lacks much of the warmth and compassion that made the redheaded moppet so endearing to all ages. Plus Annie had a memorable score, with most people today still being able to warble “Tomorrow” on cue.
So while Alan Menken’s music is easy enough on the ears, the strength of Newsies falls almost entirely on the frenetic dancing that moves to overcome the flat-footed book by Harvey Fierstein, who’s firebrand humor is almost entirely missing. No doubt Disney execs were happy with a family-friendly production, but the script could use some crafty humor to give it spark.
Ironically, the plot is loaded with social and political heat, set against the historical backdrop of the New York City newsboy strike of 1899. When media moguls Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst decided to make their newspaper boys pay more for the papers they sell, the teens revolt. Complications ensue and the boys soon find themselves in a battle of organized labor versus free capitalism. But what sounds intriguing on paper is less so in Fierstein’s step-by-step script meant only to bridge song and dance together.
But thrilling dance numbers are the show’s calling card, with each one seeming to top the last. These young adult dancers (portraying teen kids) run up and down stairs with the kind of energy one expects to find in a middle school. With multiple playing levels, the action quickly morphs from ground level to two flights up. And when they are not kicking it up, the boys are flinging themselves through the air performing acrobatic jumps, cartwheels, gymnastic back flips and enough pirouettes to make your head spin.
It helps that this tour plays big visually, too. Technically, the stage production is a feat in itself, with towering layers of steel platforms that twist and turn for scene changes, bold scenic projections and vivid use of lighting and props. Acting from leads Dan DeLuca (the teen strike leader), Jacob Kemp (the nerdy best friend) and Stephanie Styles (a young newspaper reporter) is just fine, although Kemp’s vocals soar over his co-stars. Steve Blanchard as media mogul Joseph Pulitzer has some strong moments as the baddie capitalist whom the teen paperboys are rebelling against.
So the news here is hardly headline grabbing: Newsies plays better as a live staged musical than a film. But few will confuse it with art; it’s packaged entertainment in the highest Disney fashion. And you can’t get any more capitalistic than that.
—SCOT C HART