Disney tries to form a more perfect union in dancetastic ‘Newsies’
If you’re reading this review and not getting newsprint on your fingers, then you might not fully grasp what a show like Newsies, now at the Winspear Opera House, means to old-school journalists. I’m a newspaperman, but in the 21st century, when newsboys — the kids who hawk print copies of the daily rag on sidewalks for a dime a piece — are outmoded and quaint. But that doesn’t diminish the fist-in-the-air passion of this enrapturing musical, any more than a post-DeGaulle France makes the struggles in Les Miserables irrelevant. In fact, think of it like Les Miz where everyone sounds like Cyndi Lauper and the pen truly is mightier than the sword.
It’s 1899, and Joseph Pulitzer isn’t the patron saint of journalism yet, but a craven power-broker who uses his pulpit to shape public opinion and achieve his social ends. Circulation of his New York World newspaper has dropped, so to increase profits he raises the charge he levies against the newsies, mostly street kids who scramble to sell the headlines in a city where two dozen daily papers vie for the eyes of readers. (For those not holding a copy of Dallas Voice in your hands: It’s like Gawker vs. Perez Hilton, but without Twitter.)
Radicalize young Jack Kelly (and endlessly moving Dan DeLuca) unionizes his fellow salesmen with the hopes of bringing Pulitzer around, but how do you defeat the man who controls what the people know? Will their story ever make it above the fold (another newspaper term — ask an adult to explain it to you). Hey, this is a musical — they’ll find a way. And it will definitely include dancin’.
Let it be known: There are more beefy calves in the cast of Newsies than at a veal farm, and that’s just one small reason why you have to see this show. Written by Harvey Fierstein, it’s really what we all hoped Kinky Boots would be before it arrived earlier this year as a firecracker instead of the dynamite that this show is. It’s old-fashioned Broadway-style excitement, with an energetic cast whose dancing skills are only surpassed by their smiles. Oh, and those calves.
When’s the last time you saw a show populated by a line of chorus boys all tapping away like telegraphs sending out distress calls? When’s the last time you saw an audience cheer this much at that tapping? And it’s like that for more than two hours.
If that were all there were to it, you might not be transfixed, but there’s also Alan Menken’s plum of a score, director Jeff Calhoun’s fluid stagecraft (three scaffoldings convey the dehumanizing effect of industrialization while managing to be exceedingly useful) and a slate of young actors who leave every bit of sweat they can spare on that stage.
Especially this week, after seeing the cops-against-citizenry clashes in Baltimore, it’s difficult to look at standoffs, even theatrical ones like here, and not have them resonate. And that’s as much the point as anything: Newsies may seem to be about people trying to save jobs long since abandoned by history, but the struggles are as current as today’s headlines.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition May 1, 2015.