Regional Reviews: Phoenix
The film, inspired by the real life Newsboys Strike of 1899, featured music by multiple Oscar winner Alan Menken and lyrics by Jack Feldman. The movie cost $15 million dollars to make yet grossed less than $3 million at the box office. Years of cable TV runs and video sales, along with the fact that Christian Bale played the lead in the film, turned the movie into somewhat of a cult classic. The score has several rousing anthems, all of which have been brought to the stage, and Menken and Feldman have also written several new songs to fill out the score. They received a Tony Award for their efforts.
Set in 1899, the musical tells the story of a gang of mostly orphan newsboys who deliver the news to New York City. These "newsies" stage a protest when publisher Joseph Pulitzer raises the price they must pay for their supply of papers only to boost his own profits. The group is led by Jack Kelly (Joey Barreiro) who is inspired by the ongoing trolley worker's strike and their ability to organize themselves, along with Davey (Stephen Michael Langton), the older of two brothers who are selling papers due to their father being out of work. However, they quickly find that trying to get a group of kids to go against the adult-run city is harder than they thought.
For the book, four-time Tony Award winner Harvey Fierstein expanded on the screenplay by Bob Tzudiker and Noni White. Fierstein's theatrical touches are prominent throughout the show and his sense of warmth and humor, as well as smart, realistic dialogue, turn the story into something very relevant and emotionally engaging. The new script also wisely turns the reporter character from the film into a young female newspaper reporter named Katherine who is now a romantic interest for Jack. There are also some new twists in the plot that are welcome additions. While most of the new songs aren't quite as good as the ones from the film, Menken and Feldman have written one song for Katherine, "Watch What Happens," that is a gem. It is an excellent theatre song that not only is character based but also drives the plot forward and has some excellent rhymes. The song also gets a reprise in act two.
Director Jeff Calhoun has assembled a first rate cast for this tour. Barreiros charm, strength, warmth, good looks and swagger work very well for the leadership aspects of Jack. He has a fairly decent, and thick, "New Yawk" accent and a gritty look and feel, all of which are appropriate for this street smart young man. Barreiros pure and powerful voice excels on his many songs. It is an honest and rousing performance. As Katherine, Morgan Keene has the looks and pipes to carry off the young, fast-talking, feisty reporter who's trying to prove herself in a world of men. Like Barreiro she is also an excellent singer. She exhibits a natural and strong take on this woman who is slightly ahead of her time.
Though Pulitzer is only given a little to do in both acts, Steve Blanchard does a fine job playing the villain of the piece. He also has a beautiful and clear singing voice. While most of the "newsies" aren't as easily singled out, Andy Richardson is Crutchie and he and Barreiro have a special bond. Richardson brings plenty of spunk to the part of the kid with the bum leg and you can easily see why Jack feels like he needs to protect him. "Santa Fe," one of the best remembered songs from the movie, opens the musical in a somewhat quieter version than the one in the film, and Barreiro and Richardson do a nice job with the song. It is a song about dreams and moving on to someplace better, and having these two close friends sing it perfectly captures the special bond the two have as well as how Jack feels he needs to protect Crutchie, even though Crutchie can handle himself fairly well. A song written for the tour in act two also fleshes out Crutchie's role and Richardson delivers it with plenty of warmth and humor.
Stephen Michael Langton and Ethan Steiner as brothers Davey and Les are completely believable as siblings who turn to hawking newspapers while their father is out of work. They look and act like they come from a slightly more well off place than the rest of the "newsies" but have no problem connecting with Jack. While Langton is given more of the "straight man" part to play, not just against Barreiro as the born leader but also against Steiner, who gets some nice laughs in his part, he also evokes a nice sense of intelligence, education and truth that is a good counterpoint to the street smart Jack.
The Tony winning choreography by Christopher Gattelli is rousing, almost non-stop, and is original yet in the style of the film, and the gifted cast delivers on what is required of them. Gattelli cleverly uses newspapers as a dance prop in one number, and the energetic "King of New York" tap number in act two is a huge crowd favorite. The male ensemble excel in the exuberant dance sequences with a perfect combination of ballet and athletics, and they are individual chances to show off their abilities. The joy they bring to all of the dance numbers is infectious.
Calhoun keeps the show moving at a fast speed, and the sets by Tobin Ost are fantastic. The three-tiered steel set of stairs that is almost constantly moving around the stage is perfectly paired with projections by Sven Ortel to become the tenement where Jack lives, the backstage of a theatre where Jack spends his time painting backdrops, and even the Brooklyn Bridge. Costumes by Jess Goldstein are also first rate. The brown and dark tweeds for the "newsies," the pinstriped suits for the wealthier businessmen, the colorful costumes for Katherine and Jack's theatre friend Medda, and even red-hued clothes for the Brooklyn "newsies," all perfectly establish the time, place and feel of the show.
Newsies is a rousing and engaging turn of the century story of David vs Goliath. The current touring production of this Tony winning show has an excellent and exuberant cast, a smart book, witty score, huge sets, perfect period costumes, energetic choreography, and clear direction. It is a crowd pleaser in the truest sense with some of the most infectious and thrilling dance numbers to grace a Broadway show in many years.
Newsies plays through June 19th, 2016, at ASU Gammage located at 1200 S. Forest Avenue in Tempe. Tickets can be purchased at www.asugammage.com or by calling 480 965-3434. For more information on the tour, visit www.newsiesthemusical.com.
Alan Menken: Music