When one goes to the theatre, preconceptions are inevitable. If you went to see Jerry Springer the Opera at New Line Theatre last summer, you would certainly have been understood if you left the venue feeling stunned by the level of profanity. In fact, chances are you had probably prepared yourself for it far before you walked in the door or even decided to buy a ticket.


Now what pops in your head when you hear, “Disney presents: …”? If it’s not Jerry Springer in hell, then the rest of this review will come as no shock to you: The Fabulous Fox, Disney, spectacle. But is this good ‘news’ or bad ‘news’? It depends on who you’re talking to...

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Based on the ‘Newsboys Strike of 1899', the slummy paper boys of New York City have just been shafted by the white collared conglomerate and publisher of the New York World, Joseph Pulitzer (dauntingly and menacingly portrayed by Steve Blanchard), who hiked up the price of 100 ‘payps’ by 10 cents. The newsies, showing better math skills than today’s ostensibly better-educated kids, figure that they have to now sell 60 cents per hundred for only a shot at making mere cents for the day. This allows for Blanchard to truly embody that which epitomizes a Disney villain - complete with goatee and elaborate, obviously wealthy attire.


Amidst astounding choreography by Christopher Gattelli, of a level I’ve scarcely seen before onstage, it’s almost easy to forget that the boys’ real-life counterparts were working for a living in those days. In this version of the story, the pack of orphaned misfits, which includes a courageous performance by Zachary Sayle (Crutchie), and enchantingly led by Jack Kelly (Joey Barreiro), band together with their fellow newsboys of the NYC boroughs to demand that the cost of a hund-o settle back to 50 cents. What happens next would be unthinkable for Disney themselves in this age: they triumphantly form a union.


This familiar (and at the same time, not-so-familiar) story plays out in front of a set that can only be described as Hollywood Squares dressed up as the exterior of a dingy old-fashioned New York high-rise with an extra dash of RENT flavored industrial grime.


The backdrop of 3 blocks by 3 blocks serves multiple purposes: It effectively brandishes screens for multi-media projections that are equally effective as they pivot thus allowing for the monster of a set to move as a unit (most notably during the densely scored and touching “Seize the Day” as it storms the stage’s apron). In doing so, it will reveal, at times, three levels of fire escape staircases to allow for equal playing space vertically as it does horizontally. Pretty neat.

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Despite Jack’s leadership, confidently portrayed by Barreiro, Jack’s new-found friend Davey (Stephen Michael Langton) and his little brother Les (John Michael Pitera) form the real brains of the plan. Both actors offer a hopeful gust to an otherwise downtrodden undertone - very likeable, these two. And don’t worry, of course there’s a romance. And of course, it’s forbidden. Cue Katherine, the well-mannered, literate, and beautiful daughter of Pulitzer himself, perfectly played by the captivating Morgan Keene (most impressively showcased in her Act 1 mouthful “Watch What Happens”).


I think you see where this is going.


Through Barreiro’s rough, tough and lovable performance, though, it’s reasonable to see how our lovely "Juliet’s" mood takes her to the greener side of the fence. As Jack sketches his way through her irritated exterior with a portrait he’s drawn of her. Keene is not alone in her talent, of course. As Katherine reviews Medda Larkin’s performance at the theatre, she might have done better to note that Aisha de Haas was nothing short of a showstopper with her resonant, soulful performance of “That’s Rich.”


The show also shines through the magnificent aforementioned choreography, which more than validates its 2012 Tony Award for Best Choreography. If for no other reason, make your way to the Fabulous Fox to indulge in some of the most impressive spectacle of choreography I’ve seen onstage. Thanks to Gattelli’s aerobic, exhausting and acrobatic orchestra of movement, it truly is a character in and of itself featuring 31+ flips, tap dancing, and inventive novelty newspaper numbers. Indeed, the choreography pauses the narrative to showboat the casts’ admirable abilities on their feet (or in the air). And it should not go unmentioned that the clarity with which the orchestra accompanied our story had me fumbling through the Playbill to identify if the music was tracked. Bravo to the orchestra for articulating Alan Menken’s Tony Award-winning score so tightly.

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It’s a classic Disney age-old tale of the poor vs. the rich, but Newsies is sprinkled with political overtones that encapsulate an important part of our country's history. What we see here, through a child's innocent and adventurous lens, is a contribution to what ultimately resulted in modern child labor laws being enacted in Industrial Age America. Seemingly uncharacteristic of a Disney premise, it’s important to note that the production tackles the subject matter and its importance beautifully, without being preachy or heavy-handed. The story, though, is unapologetically embellished by its stereotypical “stage musical” qualities, which lightens the tone enough for the politics to drift over some viewers' heads. Depending on your taste, this may feel just right. For others, it may be excessive and inherently distracting.


Whether you’re a Disney fan, a Newsies (film) fan, or neither, you will be advised not to let your ideas of what this show might be get in the way of a performance that displays such an enjoyable balance of originality and familiarity. The Disney story and the Disney production may inevitably precede it, but the first-rate choreography and acting make Newsies well worth the price of admission in their own right. That’s the good news.


Newsies is currently running at The Fox Theatre (527 N. Grand Ave) through January 31, with performances at 7:30 p.m. Tues–Fri, 2 p.m. & 7:30 p.m. Sat, and 1 p.m. Sun. You can also see it at 6:30 p.m. Sun. Jan. 24 and 1 p.m. Thur. Jan. 28. Tickets are $30

 

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