Who doesn’t love an underdog? Or at least love to hate the bad guys, especially if they’re fat and rich and used to getting their way?
The NYC Newsboys Strike of 1899 would have made great television if television had been invented then. Instead, it would have to wait ninety-three years for Walt Disney to make a “loosely-based-on-actual-events” comedy-drama with original songs featuring Robert Duvall and Ann-Margret. It bombed. Nevertheless, the video came out and slowly gathered a cult following. And what do we do when we have a cult following? (Say it together) We make a stage musical!
Undergoing some nips and tucks, deletes and song changes, the Broadway show known as “Disney’s Newsies” opened in 2012 and ran for over a thousand performances. Along the way, it picked up multiple Tony and Drama Desk nominations for everything from direction to acting to orchestration; it won for choreography and original score.
Directed by Molly Smith, the show now lighting up the Fichandler stage at Arena has that unmistakable fire in the belly that we associate with David vs. Goliath style causes. The story, simple enough, is remarkable for being a first of its time and place. In the middle of the Gilded Age, the fabulously wealthy (pre-income tax) bosses of New York City, led society, set the tone, and made the news. Wm. Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer made their fortunes printing the news, but it was the newsboys (newsies) – those ragged, underfed muffins who lived however they could – that hawked the newspapers on the street.
When the bosses raised the newsies’ price from fifty cents to sixty cents per hundred, enough was enough. These unruly, desperate little toughs managed to organize and go on strike. It was rough going for a while, but eventually, incredibly, they won. (It wouldn’t be a musical today if they hadn’t.)
Spurred on by energetic optimism, this show has a brightness that permeates every facet, especially Parker Esse’s choreography. This “muscle dancing” wows with vitality and precision, and occasionally explodes into acrobatics and hot tap dancing. The sheer zest of it buoys the sense that our newsies might be poor and living on the edge, but they’re unstoppable.
Jack Kelly is their leader. As played by Daniel Maldonado, he has the force and charisma that the potential strikers need to feel confident in their movement. We can believe that this character would march into Joseph Pulitzer’s office to state his terms. Edward Gero gives his reliably well-grounded performance as Pulitzer, embracing the man’s power and entitlement without allowing him to become a caricature. (“The Bottom Line”)
But Kelly also reveals a conflicted side that wants to escape the madness of the city for a western ideal called “Santa Fe” and sings about it in a tenor voice that is both passionate and pure. Without a real love interest for this character, it had to be created for him, and so we have the aspiring journalist, Katherine Plumber (Erin Weaver). She joins the newsies’ cause, using her surprise resources – and her fine soprano in songs such as “Watch What Happens” and “King of New York.” But she, too, has a secret.
Tight ensemble work from a large cast, many of whom play multiple roles, keeps a smooth forward momentum; nevertheless, some characters stand out. Crutchie (Joe Montoya), so named for the bum leg that requires a crutch, surely represents a large swath of handicapped youngsters of the day who struggled to keep food on the table. Crutchie plays it straightforwardly, and never reeks of inner weakness or self-pity, even in “Letter from the Refuge”.
Kelly occasionally retreats to the vaudeville theatre on the bowery owned by Medda Larkin (Nova Payton), a vividly plumed bird of a performer. She’s dazzling and showy, but volumes in her crowd-pleasing song “That’s Rich” border on the ear splitting.
Hazel Hay steals the role of Les, an adorable nine-year-old who swaggers with the best of them. Les is the younger brother of Davey, (Ethan Van Slyke), and the fact that the brothers have a real mother and father at home, unlike most of the newsies, makes them slightly suspect. But Davey brings a second-in-command strength to his involvement, (“The World Will Know”, “Seize the Day”, “Watch What Happens”). Ensemble harmonies, as strong as the choreography, are particularly thrilling in “Once and For All”.
Alejo Vietti’s costumes are period true and range, for the newsies, in dusty greens, grays, browns, and blues. Ken Macdonald’s set design makes a virtue of the four sided arena stage, with swiftly moving diagonals of platforms and ladders and whole changes of scene.
The story of how the newsies became the news, seized the day and won a far-reaching victory for a powerless, throw-away segment of society resonates long after the fact. They also learned, for the first time, apparently, that “fame is one intoxicating potion!” Thanks to this musical version, their story is carried on the banner over a century later.
Maggie Lawrence is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association. She is a retired English and drama teacher.
WANT TO GO?
What: “Disney’s Newsies”
Where: Arena Stage, Fichandler Theatre, 1101 Sixth St. SW, Washington, D.C.
Call: (202) 554-9066 or visit arenastage.org
Playing through Dec. 29