There is certainly much to like in the touring production of the Disney musical “Newsies,” currently running through March 15th at the Orpheum Theatre in San Francisco. It has a spirit and a gusto that is raucous, youthful and loaded with energy.
Yet the musicals fatal flaw is that it is not a musical one might consider as memorable. As a “Newsies” rookie myself, one who doesn’t have a history of watching the movie or having seen the musical, I went in blind to what the show had to offer.
That proved to be both an advantage and disadvantage. Certainly, the legions of followers that were enthralled by the 1992 film version outshouted the critics, who widely panned that adapted version of the actual newsboys strike of 1899 as a box office bomb. The actual newboys strike went after the circulations of the heaviest of heavyweights in the daily news cycle – Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst, demanding fair wages for those children who got the papers to loyal readers daily.
If you see enough musicals, the opportunity to see a musical that is completely new becomes more and more rare. But unfortunately, here is where “Newsies” just doesn’t work so well – it’s just not a show that stays with you.
Other than a few numbers, such as “Seize the Day” and “King of New York,” the music is catchy yet underwhelming. Surely, Jack Feldman’s lyrics and Alan Menken’s compositions make for a lot of pleasantness in the scoring. And Harvey Fierstein’s book does a bang-up job of nailing the cheesy style of the period dialogue, resplendent with plenty of lines such as “Why I oughta…” and “We gotta deliver da papes.” Musically, it’s fine, enough of it catchy and toe tapping even. Yet it’s just not spectacular.
Now it may sound like I didn’t like this show all that much. But that’s not entirely the case. It is certainly entertaining and a delightful spectacle, with a gargantuan mobile set designed magnificently by Tobin Ost, a set that creates many different realities and locales for the inhabitants of this world.
Individual performances ruled the day. Dan DeLuca’s gritty portrayal of the leader of the strike, Jack Kelly, the young man with the guts to take on the biggest names in newspaper history was richly effective. Stephanie Styles turn as the serious yet charming reporter Katherine was plenty of layers of sweet. Styles brings to the show a nice range as someone compelled by the plight of the newsboys, taking on certain members of the establishment in the process. And Jacob Kemp was uncannily pathos-filled as Davey, the caretaker of his little brother Les, played on this night by Anthony Rosenthal. Finally, Angela Grovey hunkers down and nails the hell out of big-throated song lady Medda Larkin, a warm and joyous matriarch for these boys looking for hope.
While the story is certainly compelling and the music is serviceable, there is no denying the bread and butter of this piece is the phenomenal choreography by Christopher Gattelli. This is a high-flying, athletic and acrobatic bundle of power, driven hard mostly by the phenomenal ensemble. Each number was done big, bold and beautifully. The aforementioned “King of New York” is a marvel, with plenty of unified movement and many opportunities to showcase the individual dancers and their sublime skills.
This is choreography taught for young performers and nailed by young performers. The dancing, much like the ensemble, is wonderfully diverse, from classic forms such as tap and ballet to good old-fashioned hardcore jazz movement.
While “Newsies” may have its flaws, it still carries with it plenty of charm, and a youthful energy that is nailed down by all that youth up on the stage. It may not be amazing, but it is certainly joyous.
WHAT TO KNOW IF YOU GO
SHNSF presents “Newsies”
Music by Alan Menken
Lyrics by Jack Feldman
Book by Harvey Fierstein
Directed by Jeff Calhoun
The Word: Despite its flaws, tells a compelling story of the power of youthful idealism at the turn of the century.
Stars: 3.5 out of 5
Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes with one 15-minute intermission
Feb. 17th – March 15th
Tickets range from $50 to $250
The Orpheum Theatre
1192 Market St., San Francisco, CA
For tickets, call (888) 746-1799 or visit www.shnsf.com