Wednesday, May 11, 2016

"Disney's Newsies"

Disney’s Newsies
Alan Menken (Music); Jack Feldman (Lyrics); Harvey Fierstein (Book)

The Newsies in Flight
How better to get a packed audience, from first row to last seat in the balcony, rip-roaring excited about a little-told piece of history than through a stage full of high-jumping, midair-flipping, split-legging, fist-pumping guys in perfectly coordinated dance and full-voiced song?  Oh, and did I mention that while they gyrate and fly in all directions, three mammoth structures -- each with three stacked layers of Erector-Set-like, metal boxes connected with multiple-staircases -- are moving in and out and rotating among the dancing boys?  Just writing this, and my heart starts madly pumping! 

Welcome to the exuberant, testosterone-filled Disney’s Newsies in which Harvey Fierstein’s book’s is based on an actual newsboys’ strike in 1899 New York against the likes of newspaper moguls Pulitzer and Hearst, with the music of Alan Menken and lyrics of Jack Feldman thrown in for electrifying results.  Having seen the original 2012 Broadway show with multiple Tony nominations (winning Best Score and Choreography), I can fully attest that the current touring company hosted by Broadway San Jose fully echoes the overall excellence, palpable excitement, and exiting audience elation of the original.

The rousing, rambunctious opening number somewhat described above, “Carrying the Banner,” introduces a dozen and a half boys who mostly live on roof tops, fire escape landings, and alley ways of Lower Manhattan, trying their best to ilk a few pennies per day to keep them fed and out of the notorious juvenile detention center called “The Refuge.”  With names like Romeo, Finch, Elmer, Race, and Crutchie, these kids are selling their fifty or so papers a day and are forming a brotherhood that is all the family most of them have.  And still they sing, “Ain’t it a fine life, carrying the banner, through it all!”

But a penny-pinching, filthy rich Joseph Pulitzer, owner of the daily New York World, has figured out a way to increase his declining readership and eek out more profits on the backs of these newspaper-toting boys.  He plans to charge them sixty cents per hundred papers rather than fifty, forcing them to sell more to stay even.  Steve Blanchard is the smartly dressed, diabolical Pulitzer who sings in both a rich and treacherous tone in the midst of his morning hair trim, “Trim a bit here, trim a bit there, just a modest adjustment can fatten the bottom line.”

Joey Barreiro as Jack Kelly & the Newsies
However, just as the poor street schmucks are about to give in to their higher costs, Jack Kelly (fashioned after the real-life newsboy, Kid Blink) steps forward to organize the boys into their own union and to go on strike.  With an inviting voice that grows in fire and fury, Joey Barreiro brings a sense of destiny into his Jack as he and his Newsies sing in “The World Will Know,” “And this ain’t for fun ... for show ... We’ll fight ‘em toe to toe to toe ... And, Joe (Pulitzer), your world will ... know!”

Jack and his ragamuffins get strong support from two of the unlikeliest of women.  Like a Mae West with her hip-swinging strut, wide-brimmed and feathered hat, and glittery and gaudy gown, Bowery nightclub owner Medda Larkin brings heart and refuge to Jack and his gang (and a location later for a city-wide rally of neighborhood Newsies).  Aisha de Haas sings in a voice brimming with personality, pizzazz, and power (with a capital “P”) and lights up the stage in her “That’s Rich.”

But even more surprising is that Pulitzer’s own daughter, Katherine -- a struggling arts reporter for a rival paper -- meets Jack unexpectedly; is struck by his brashness, his contagiously cute smile, and this flair for art (he sketches her); and becomes convinced this story of a children’s campaign for justice is her road to serious journalism.  Understudy Becca Peterson (stepping in Opening Night for Morgan Keene) gives a wowing performance as Katherine, spitting out with clarity rapidly sung words and notes as fast as she can type in “Watch What Happens.”  She then builds in volume and confidence into full headline vocals, “The fight is on ... and all I know is nothing happens if you give in ... It just so happens, we might win.”

Katherine takes on the boys’ cause and also takes totally to Jack.  She and he will run smack dab into her road-blocking father; but together they find inspiration to pursue and they find, of course, each other.  In “Something to Believe In,” each has locked-eyes and pursed lips ready for that first kiss as they beautifully sing, “I have something to believe in, now that I know you believe in me.”

But these boys have other leaders that emerge from their midst, too – also from unlikely places.  Two boys who actually have a mother, a father (who is now sick), and a home keep the fires burning in the campaign at a point when Jack has some second thoughts.  Stephen Michael Langton is a lanky, teenager named Davey who blasts to the forefront of his fellow Newsies with a singing voice steeped in courage and charisma, singing, “Now is time to seize the day, stare down the odds, and seize the day.”  He, Jack, and the Newsies pull out all the dance steps from ballet to Cirque du Soleil as they fly through air and slide on floor in a truly magnificent “Seize the Day.”

Davey’s ten-year-old, kid brother -- the diminutive in stature but giant in spirit, Les – takes on bullies many times his size and often is the high-pitched voice that rises out of the gathered gang to inspire the next steps in the strike’s action.  Turner Birthisel (alternating the role with Ethan Steiner) is a ball of energy and action and brings his own notable singing and stepping abilities to this outstanding cast.

Newise in "King of New York"
Number after number seems to out-do the previous in electrifying the crowd; but one of the best of the evening has to be the Second Act’s opening, “King of New York.”  A full cast, including Katherine and little Les, tap in their boots on tables and floor of Jacob’s Deli while playing a full orchestra of spoons off their knees, arms, and each other – and while also doing yet more leg splits on the floor and high jumps with legs fully parallel to that same floor.

Many other cast members have their moments to leave a memory in the audience’s banks.  Andy Richardson is Jack’s best buddy with a lame leg, Crutchie -- ever-cheerful and ready-to-fight when needed.  His “Letter from the Refuge” is sung with quiet passion and persistent penchant of hope against all odds.  Jordon Samuels is just one of many outstanding Newsies dancers; but as Specs, he time and again totally astounds with high-air acrobatics.  Kevin Carolan is a Governor (Teddy) Roosevelt with the sort of bully heroics that one would expect while Alex Prakken and Michael Gorman as the Delancey Brothers are the kind of bullies one can imagine a Pulitzer might always keep around him.

The Costumes & Set of "Newsies"
Jeff Calhoun directs this massive cast with an evident knowledge of what it takes to whip up an audience and then lead them to a place to be inspired by the bravery of these boys of 1899.  How much kudos would it actually take to acknowledge the mastery of Christopher Gattelli’s choreographic leadership provided to this touring cast, ensuring that the excellence awarded on Broadway by Tonys and Drama Desk alike, continues night after night crisscrossing America?  The spot-on lighting of Jeff Croiter and the scene-and-time-period-setting projections of Daniel Brodie enhance the impressive, ever-moving structures of this gigantic set designed by Tobin Ost.  And 1899 comes to full life through the costumes of Jess Goldstein.

As is often the case for a touring show, the stay is just too short for a show as excellent as Broadway San Jose’s Newsies.  With performances only through this Sunday, May 15, now is the time to “Seize the Day” and buy that ticket for this toe-tapping, finger-snapping production.

Rating: 5 E

 Disney’s Newsies continues through May 15, 2016 at the San Jose Center for the Performing Arts, 255 South Almaden Boulevard, San Jose.  Tickets are available online at

Photo Credit by Matthew Murphy

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