By Karen Isaacs
Boy they work hard. The young men who comprise most of the cast of Newsies or Disney’s Newsies as it is billed which is now at the Bushnell in Hartford through Oct. 18 dance up a storm almost non-stop.
While it is impressive, one could paraphrase a line from Shakespeare because unfortunately it all signifies nothing.
Newsies which opened on Broadway in 2012 closing after 1004 performances is based on the Disney film of the same name that was released in 1992. Both tell – with some dramatic license –the story of the 1899 strike by newsboys in New York City against Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst (the two most prominent newspaper publishers in the city) over an increase in the price charged by the papers to the boys. In reality it wasn’t the first such strike but the boys – and they really were young boys – did win some concessions.
For the Broadway production Harvey Fierstein rewrote the book and Alan Menkin and Jack Feldman added songs while also deleting some that had been in the original film.
The premise is still about the strike but as in the movie, these are not young boys but older adolescents – looking at them you would guess they were at least 16 or several years older. This dilutes one of the elements in the show which is about the treatment of orphaned and poor children and child labor in general.
The strike is led by Jack Kelly (Joey Barreiro) who wants to escape to Santa Fe but he rallies the group to protest the price rise from 50 cents for 100 papers to 60 cents. The boys sell the papers for one or two cents. Pulitzer wants to raise the price because following the Spanish-American War, circulation and therefore profits have declined.
The show – like an older Annie – has the requisite types among the boys – Crutchy (Zachary Sayle) who limps and whom Kelly protects, the kid from Brooklyn, and of course the slightly more affluent new boy Davey (Joshua Burrage) whose father was let go from a factory because he had been injured on the job. Plus we have Davey’s younger brother, Les (Ethan Steiner in the performance I saw) – cute and sassy.
Also, there has to be a romance – and Fierstein clarified and combined characters. In a truly ironic turn, the romantic interest (Katherine played by Morgan Keene) is an aspiring female reporter who it turns out to be Pultizer’s daughter. Later on the sons of Hearst and another publisher help the boys. The only other significant female role is that of Medda Larkin (Aisha DeHaas) who owns and stars at a theater in the Bowery; she is the requisite motherly figure.
This is a testosterone heavy show and perhaps because of that the music all sounds pretty much the same. There seems to be one semi-rousing ballad after another – even the titles tell you that (“Carrying the Banner,” “Seize the Day,” “Watch What Happens,” “The World Will Know”). The choreography by Christopher Gattelli focuses on stomping, fist pumping and acrobatics.
Yes, there are a few moments of relief but they are few and far between. “The Bottom Line” demonstrates Pulitzer and later the Mayor’s point of view. Medda gets one “on-stage” number and Katherine gets a ballad and a love song with Jack.
I came away from the show — I must admit the audience was cheering – feeling that it was all of one note; it needed variation in tone, in voices (in group numbers Katherine is drowned out), in choreography. It is too formula.
Yet the performances all hard working, earnest and professional. If it is hard to really differentiate the boys except for Jack, Crutchy, Davey, it is not the fault of the performers but of the script. They are interchangeable.
Morgan Keene tries to project the young woman rebelling against her famous father and her privileged up-bringing. She does a good job, but this role also is seriously underwritten.
The scenic design by Tobin Ost reflects the urban environment with giant moving structures that reminded me of the old Erector set toys. Jess Goldstein did the period costumes and made the boys look probably cleaner and better dressed than they really were.
As is often a problem at the Bushnell, the sound system blasts the anthem which blurs lyrics.
Of course, Fierstein had to add a cameo appearance by then Governor of New York Teddy Roosevelt. Can we have a show of the period without TR appearing?
Many people will enjoy Newsies, if only for the energy. But this is only a moderately successful musical which was reflected in New York by the limited awards (and even nominations) the show received.
Newsies is at the Bushnell, 166 Capitol Ave., Hartford. For tickets visit bushnell.org.