(Reviewed by Andrew J. Friedenthal, American-Statesman freelance arts critic.)
In 1992, Walt Disney Pictures released “Newises,” an original live-action musical drama loosely based on New York City’s 1899 Newsboy Strike. The film was a flop with poor reviews, but it struck a chord with kids who were the right age when it came out, such that it has gone on to achieve a cult following in recent years.
The lingering love for “Newises,” (helped along by the purchasing power of the kids who were now twenty-somethings) led to a 2011 production of the movie as a stage musical, eventually moving on to a successful, Tony-nominated Broadway run.
Now, that production is on tour, and playing through Oct. 2 at Bass Concert Hall as a part of the Broadway in Austin series, presented by the University of Texas at Austin and Texas Performing Arts.
Both in its original film version and in the current stage musical, “Newises,” is notable for two things in particular—its politics and its dancing.
Newsies is a stirring, if somewhat naively melodramatic, portrayal of how a union movement develops from the ground up. When Joseph Pulitzer decides to increase the cost per paper to the newsboys (or “newsies”) who hawk his newspapers across New York City, they rebel against him by going on strike and forming a union. For what was essentially a disposable family musical, Newsies in its original form turned out to be one of the most ardently pro-union films since Norma Rae.
In an era where the idea of workers uniting to fight back against the abuses of corporate power is more potent than ever, Newsies still has bite. Its signature song, “Seize The Day,” speaks to the core idea of individuals being stronger together, fighting against the bullying tactics of the rich and powerful.
Given that this is both Broadway and Disney, it should come as no surprise that this battle is dramatized primarily through song and dance. “Newises,” features all of the classic songs from the movie, plus a few new ones added by original composer Alan Menken and lyricist Jack Feldman. Though Harvey Fierstein’s book makes some extreme character changes from Bob Tzudker and Noni White’s screenplay, he wisely keeps the political aspects front and center, playing into the productions’ greatest strength—its ensemble.
The leads in “Newises, all turn in strong performances (Joey Barreiro’s Jack Kelly is the right mix of charming and vulnerable, Stephen Michael Langton’s Davey is simultaneously wise and naïve, and Morgan Keene’s Katherine dominates the stage through her vocal command alone).
But it is the chorus of newsies who command the production. Their acrobatic, vivacious, and bouncy dance routines (choreographed by Christopher Gattelli) steal the show, so much so that there is a separate dance curtain call before the final bows. Director Jeff Calhoun’s staging takes a cue from this, and focuses on mobility, with a scaffolded set (designed by Tobin Ost) that breaks apart into various configurations throughout the show.
As a Disney-produced Broadway musical, “Newises” succeeds as spectacle through clever direction and design, strong leads, and an amazing group of staggeringly talented dancers. Underneath the spectacle, though, is an important message about finding strength in union(s). As the show’s lyrics potently remind us, “One for all and all for one.”