Regional Reviews: Cincinnati
Also see Scott's recent review of An Evening With Jason Robert Brown
Sometimes, too much of a good thing can work against a show, especially if other areas are lacking in contrast. This is the case with the musical Newsies, which is currently playing at the Aronoff Center in Cincinnati, Ohio. While this national tour boasts a strong cast, great dancing, and a number of catchy songs, weaknesses in other aspects keep the show from reaching its full potential.
Newsies started out as a Disney live-action film musical in 1992. It wasn't much of a hit at that time, but has gained somewhat of a cult following since then. After a 2011 tryout at Paper Mill Playhouse in New Jersey, a stage version opened on Broadway in 2012 and won two Tony Awards, for Best Score and Best Choreography. The story is historical fiction, based on the newsboys' strike of 1899 in New York City. Young Jack Kelly leads a group of street urchin newspaper hawkers in forming a makeshift union to protest an increase in the price for them to purchase the papers for resale.
The musical's book by Harvey Fierstein moderately tweaks the original screenplay by Bob Tzudiker and Noni White. Primarily, a central female character in the form of Katherine Plummer (and her accompanying secondary storyline) has been added. Katherine is a combination of the movie characters Sarah Jacobs and reporter Brian Denton, both of whom have been omitted here. There are additional changes as well, but the general premise is still the same. Though the musical has many elements which could make it a solid showromance, social commentary, plenty of conflict, and a bit of humorthe story feels somewhat contrived and there's an inefficiency in the storytelling (though the direction shares some of the blame for this).
As the Tony win asserts, the Newsies score by Alan Menken (music) and Jack Feldman (lyrics) is noteworthy, with a number of standout songs. Original film songs (though in new versions boasting many new lyrics) include Jack's want song "Santa Fe," the rousing "Carrying the Banner," "Seize the Day," and the act two opener "King of New York." The best of the new songs written for the stage adaption is Katherine's "Watch What Happens." The problem with the score is that it's very anthem-heavy, and so many of them are stirring and energetic group numbers for the newsboys with hope-filled messagesone of the examples of too much of a good thing. While these are extremely melodic and effective songs, more variety in style and substance would make for an overall better score.
The dances by Christopher Gattelli, and there are a lot of them, showcase many athletic leaps, pirouettes, flips, and kicks performed by the newsboys. When the second act opens with a company tap dance number for "King of New York," one recognizes the repetition in all of the other dances, however appealing they are. The direction by Jeff Calhoun is brisk and suitable in tone, but the action and relationships feel too manufactured at times. James Dodgson energetically leads a small but effective pit band.
As Jack Kelly, charismatic Joey Barreiro captures the character's outward confidence, inner insecurities, and loyalty to his friends. He sings, acts, and dances with great skill and is a solid foundation for the cast. As Davey, Stephen Michael Langton conveys a strong character arc, and supplies clear singing vocals. Morgan Keene possesses a beautiful singing voice and the right mix of spunk and endearment as Katherine, but her line delivery seems a bit too modern for the role. Ethan Steiner is cute and talented as Les, and Zachary Sayle is aptly eager, sympathetic, and optimistic as Crutchie. Both performers are skilled vocalists as well. Aisha de Haas is sassy and fun as singer Medda Larkin, and Steve Blanchard is appropriately ruthless as Mr. Pulitzer. The entire cast displays copious amounts of talent throughout, whether it's executing the challenging choreography or vocally when performing some beautiful choral work.
The scenic design by Tobin Ost features a three-tier rotating metallic scaffolding, supplemented by effective projections and smaller set pieces. The set is more functional than attractive, but is well-suited to the setting of the piece. The lighting by Jeff Croiter is professionally rendered, and costumes by Jess Goldstein are apt and period appropriate.
The strongest assets of Newsies are here in large supply: many eye popping dances, a wonderfully talented cast, and an earful of inspiring group songs with catchy tunes. A bit more variety in songs and choreography could improve those aspects. In addition, better storytelling and more organic direction would have turned a good musical into a very good or great show. Still, there's much to admire and enjoy in this national touring production.
Newsies continues at the Aronoff Center in Cincinnati through March 13, 2016. Tickets can be ordered by calling (800) 294-1816. For more information about the tour, visit www.newsiesthemusical.com.