Story: It’s a hard-knock life for the lads who deliver newspapers in New York City in the year 1899. Most of them are orphans living a day-to-day existence as they struggle for survival in the cold, indifferent city.
Jack Kelly has dreams, though. He’s seen pictures of Santa Fe, New Mexico, and longs to put together enough of a stake to head west for what he envisions to be an idyllic life. Meanwhile, he’s up early each morning to buy a pile of “papes” from middle-man Wiesel to sell on the streets of Gotham with pals like Crutchie, his physically challenged friend.
Men such as Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst make a handsome fortune off the backs of the “newsies” and others, but they want more. When Pulitzer raises the price of paper bundles sold to the newsies, though, Jack leads a populist rebellion, including newcomers Davey and Les, sons who are forced to work when their father loses his job following an injury.
When intrepid reporter Katherine Plumber gets word of the budding strike, she sets about to interview Kelly. He’s immediately attracted to her, not knowing her own surprising background. As it is, she tells Kelly she’s tired of covering flower shows and yearns to prove her mettle as a street reporter.
Pulitzer resorts to any and all methods to quell the growing strike, but Kelly is convinced the newsies can win their cause if he can unite his counterparts throughout the boroughs of New York. He believes the story of the newsies’ struggle is “all the news that’s fit to print,” if only he can find a printing press not under the thumb of the powerful publishing barons.
Highlights: The Muny closes its 99th season with its first production of this energetic, high-stepping Disney musical, which is built on strong choreography and the music of Alan Menken, led by a winning performance by Jay Armstrong Johnson as Jack Kelly.
Other Info: Muny artistic director and executive producer Mike Isaacson notes in his program article that Newsies finished second in 2000 or so in The Muny’s annual audience survey of what fans wanted to see on The Muny stage the next season. At that time, Newsies wasn’t even a musical, but a 1992 Disney film which bombed at the box office.
Isaacson points out that The Muny later was scheduled to produce a stage adaptation of Newsies for its 2013 season. However, Newsies ended up running on Broadway for more than 1,000 performances, opening in 2012 and finally closing in 2014 before going on a two-year national tour which concluded in October 2016.
That tour included an unforgettable stop at The Fox Theatre in early 2016. Now, The Muny has put together its own production of this fast-moving, agreeably sung show that is built around the staccato, precision choreography designed by Christopher Gattelli, who won a 2012 Tony Award for his efforts, as did composer Menken and lyricist Jack Feldman for their original score.
The Muny’s version features some agreeable choreography staged by Chris Bailey, who choreographed The Muny’s memorable 2013 rendition of West Side Story among others. Bailey makes his Muny directorial debut with Newsies and proves adept at shaping a lively, rambunctious interpretation that sweeps across The Muny stage with flair.
While the rumbling, electric number Seize the Day near the end of Act I doesn’t have the terpsichorean power or scope of the touring show, it’s still a galvanizing moment in this inspirational work. Of course, writer Harvey Fierstein has taken dramatic license with historical figures who are included in the story, such as Pulitzer and then-New York governor Teddy Roosevelt, but the show is based on the actual Newsboys Strike of 1899.
Johnson cuts a dashing figure as the charismatic Kelly and proves himself a fine singer as well. Other performers contributing to the upbeat tenor of the show include Tessa Grady as the feisty Katherine, Daniel Quadrino as the indomitable Crutchie and Webster Groves’ own Spencer Davis Milford as Kelly’s right-hand man Davey.
Young Gabriel Cytron is a sensation as Davey’s brother Les, who is younger but savvier than the protective Davey, filling The Muny stage with his ebullient personality. He’s matched in fervor and sassiness by Ta’Rea Campbell, who wins the audience’s hearts with her lusty performance as Jack’s vaudeville friend, Medda Larkin, a lady who realizes how talented an artist Jack really is.
Davis Gaines does well as the imperious Pulitzer, while St. Louis favorite Rich Pisarkiewicz delights as the impersonal Wiesel, the friendly restaurateur Jacobi and the blustering mayor of New York City. Fellow local favorites Ben Nordstrom and Gary Glasgow do well as Pulitzer’s aide Seitz and Snyder “the Spider,” the nasty head of a local juvenile detention center, respectively. Thad Turner Wilson has a brief but pleasant bit as Roosevelt.
Leon Dobkowski’s costumes are tailored not only to the era but also the varying social rungs inhabited by the characters. Greg Emetaz’s video design richly enhances the impressive, two-story, atmospheric set created by Michael Schweikardt, all brightly illuminated with John Lasiter’ lighting. Leah J. Loukas adds the wig design which accentuates the costumes, and the accompanying sound design is courtesy of John Shivers and David Patridge.
A winning love story between Jack and Katherine is combined with a popular story based on true events and athletic, gymnastic choreography to accentuate The Muny’s first edition of Newsies.
Company: The Muny
Venue: The Muny in Forest Park
Dates: Through August 13
Tickets: Free to $90; contact 314-534-1111 or metrotix.com
Rating: A 4 on a scale of 1-to-5.
Photos courtesy of Phillip Hamer and Eric Woolsey