By Karen Isaacs
The Connecticut Repertory Theater’s Summer Season is ending with a rousing production of Disney’s Newsies- the MusicalI through July 16.
The energetic cast — they work really hard – are led by director/choreographer Christopher D’Amboise. The young men who comprise most of the cast dance up a storm almost non-stop. Unfortunately, while energetic, much of the choreography seems either routine or not particularly geared to the situation or plot.
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 (Jim Schubin) 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 (Tyler Jones) who limps and whom Kelly protects, the kid from Brooklyn, and of course the slightly more affluent new boy Davey (Noah Kieserman) whose father was let go from a factory because he had been injured on the job. Plus we have Davey’s younger brother, Les (Aticus L. Burello) – 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 Paige Smith) 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 (Tina Fabrique) who owns and stars at a theater in the Bowery; she is the requisite motherly figure.
In this production, while Schubin is very good, I was much more drawn to the performance of Kieserman as Davey. I also wished that both Fabrique and Richard R. Henry (recently outstanding in Yale’s Assassins) who plays William Randolph Hearst had more to do. Their two big numbers “The Bottom Line” and “That’s Rich” were terrific.
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”).
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 and in choreography. It is too formulaic.
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.
Smith 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 Tim Brown reflects the urban environment with moving structures that reminded. Fan Zhang did the period costumes and made the boys look probably cleaner and better dressed than they really were.
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.
For tickets visit Connecticut Repertory Theater.