As one who, years back, lived through a combative newspaper union-organization battle (just never you mind on which side ...), I attest with experience that it would have been a far more joyous experience had it been settled through choreographed, jazz-hands-wielding fisticuffs followed by a phalanx of strikers making their point through tap-dancing.
Such is the case as the Arlington Players opens its 72nd season with a rousing, brassy and sassy production of “Disney’s Newsies the Musical,” which despite a couple issues (more on those later) offers a solid start to the area’s 2022-23 local-theater scene.
The story is a loose – verrrrrrrry loose – retelling of a true story from 1899, when newsboys in New York City went on strike after publishers raised the wholesale price the paperboys and perhaps a very few girls were charged for the newspapers they hawked.
(Ah, the good ol’ days: When there was enough money in the news biz actually worth fighting over.)
The plot revolves around Jack Kelly (played by Cristian Bustillos), one of the newsboys who dreams of bigger things, including escaping New York for New Mexico. The two-act, two-and-a-half-hour production follows Jack as he battles newspaper titans like Pulitzer and Hearst, helps his fellow ruffians survive on the street and even falls in love.
As I noted when Encore Stage & Studio produced a version of this show back in 2019 B.C. (Before COVID), it’s the type of show that fans of musical theater will swoon over. In fact, the first Sunday-matinee performance had even more of that than usual, as it seemed to be the performance drawing friends and family. Never hurts to have a supportive audience; even some of the scene changes got applause.
Directed by Emily “E.J.” Jonas and choreographed by Brianna Galligan, the show has a lot of spunky performances. Bustillos grew on me as the afternoon rolled on, and to single out some especially strong performances, there were Evan Hamilton and Caleb Dawkins, both marvelous as brotherly newby newsies in need of cash for their family who came out to hawk some “papes” to the public – the apparently slang-y “papes” being repeated so often in the show that I wondered if the letter “r” hadn’t been invented until the 20th century – as well as Kaya Harrison (fun!) as a chanteuse with a heart of gold and Olivia Clavel-Davis (great vocal range!) as a young reporter trying to make her name by covering the strike while hiding a secret.
Also solid: Jesse Friedson as Jack Kelly’s best friend, Preston Grover as glowering nemesis Joseph Pulitzer and John Jennings as an always-in-motion young unionista.
The set (Austin Fodrie) is at times Spartan but effectively evocative, working well. Anna Marquardt gets credit for costumes, while Jackie Owen led the orchestra.
The musical, based on an earlier Disney film, notched just over 1,000 performances on Broadway and had a healthy run on tour. But there are some reasons it never became a true financial and musical masterpiece.
Looking back on the review of the 2019 Encore Stage & Studio show, I argued then and would agree now that the plot twists were a little weak and the show seemed a tad padded (two common sins of musicals). That’s not the fault of the local productions; they originated with the Broadway show.
But one local issue was the sound; often some characters found themselves drowned out by the orchestra, so those sitting in back lost the thread of what we being said or sung. That’s not the orchestra’s fault; either miking needs to be improved or the cast has to be drilled on the technique of belting it out to hit the back row of the theater.
(One additional, lesser quibble: The faux New Yawk accents could have been dispensed with. Sometimes they worked, sometimes they merely distracted.)
Those last points are certainly honest demerits, but shouldn’t keep audiences away from what proved a very strong opening to the Arlington Players’ season.
If you like musical-theater razzmatazz with some very solid performances, you’re in for a treat.
“Disney’s Newsies the Musical” runs through Oct. 2 at Thomas Jefferson Community Theatre in Arlington. For tickets and information, see the Website at thearlingtonplayers.org.
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