In the summer of 1899, the New York City newsboys went on strike, inspiring urban, working children around the country to stand up for their rights. 120 years later to the month, the musical based on the events of the strike, Newsies, is making its professional Rhode Island debut at Theatre by the Sea.
Before it was a stage musical, Newsies was a Disney film that, despite a dubious critical reception, has since gained a cult following. The music was composed by Disney staple Alan Menken with lyrics by Jack Feldman. Newsies relays a classic underdog story of street urchins taking on newspaper tycoons who care only about their bottom line: namely, Joseph Pulitzer (Patrick Boll). Led by the charismatic and conniving Jack Kelly, a “ragtag gang of ragamuffins” fight the man, armed only with killer choreography, the charm of singing orphans and the sympathies of one reporter, Katherine Plumber (who has her own fight against the man as a woman striving to become a serious journalist): all the tools needed to make for a story that can warm even the most frigid hearts.
The real star of Newsies is the dancing. Choreographed by Charlie Sutton, and arranged here by Mark Hummel, this is a show that requires versatile dancers with the utmost strength and stamina. If ever anyone claims theater is not an athletic endeavor, this is the play to show them. From the leaps, pirouettes and flips in such ensemble numbers as “Carrying the Banner,” “The World Will Know” and “Seize the Day” to the big tap number that opens act two, “King of New York,” the energy and enthusiasm the cast brings to the stage is infectious.
Making his American theater debut, Clay Roberts, originally from New Zealand, brings us a Jack Kelly who has charm and moxie to spare, but behind the brave face he puts on as the leader of the newsies, he dreams of exchanging the city for the wilds of Santa Fe. Roberts’ New York accent, an essential component of a newsie, is a bit muddled at times. Nonetheless, his performance of the act one finale, “Santa Fe,” is breathtaking.
Katie Claire McGrath absolutely kills it as the spunky and practical Katherine Plumber. She holds her own against the ever-flirtatious Jack Kelly, and helps knock sense into him when all sense has left the building. In her solo, “Watch What Happens,” she tackles the important task of giving their cause the press it needs with reverence and insecurity, not to mention gorgeous vocals. Oh, and she taps, too.
Another important part of team “knock sense into Jack” is Dean Cestari as Davey, the new newsboy in town whose father just got laid off, leaving it up to Davey and his 10-year-old brother Les (the endearingly adorable Matthew Packard, who previously played the role for Academy Players) to provide for their family. Davey is the brains of the operation, teaching the newsies how to unionize with his large vocabulary that none of the others can understand.
But perhaps the most important relationship Jack has is with his would-be brother Crutchie (Joseph Allen). Crutchie, as his nickname suggests, uses a crutch due to a leg injury that never properly healed. If Jack is the leader and Davey is the brains of the newsies, Crutchie is the heart. Eager and spirited, it’s no wonder Jack wants to protect him at all costs.
Another stand out is Ebony Deloney as vaudeville actress and friend of Jack’s, Medda Larkin. Always willing to help him out, she gives him an opportunity to put his artistic talents to use by painting sets for her theater. Though this role is a relatively small one, it’s clear that Deloney is a star, and it would be great to see her in a leading role at some point.
Kyle Dixon’s scenic design is cleverly versatile, with the same pieces forming Jack’s fire escape “penthouse” and the gates of newsie square and various other settings. However, there was, evidently, one huge oversight: some sections of the audience have their sightline blocked by a part of the set. Word has it that the situation was bad enough that some patrons had asked for refunds. I can at least vouch for the house-left orchestra; the view was fine from there.
Though Newsies is, at its core, a feel-good Disney show, there is a relevant and hopeful message to be heeded: that when the young and powerless unite under one banner and stand up for justice, not even the mightiest can ignore their call for change.
Newsies runs through Aug 10 at Theatre by the Sea. For tickets, visit theatrebythesea.com