Updated: May 18, 2022
"Sometimes, all it takes is a voice, one voice, then a thousand, unless it's silenced."
In 1899, a legion of newspaper peddlers, homeless kids hawking "papes" on the streets of New York City, instigated a two-week labor action. it was a children's crusade protesting the policies of mogul publishers Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst, who raised the wholesale price the exploited ragamuffin vendors paid for the broadsheets—thereby reducing the boys' paltry profits.
These gutsy “newsies” became folk heroes, and led a popular newspaper boycott that forced the publishers to settle with them. Nearly a century later, in 1992, Disney released a live-action movie musical inspired by their cause and starring a teenage Christian Bale as a newsprint rebel rouser. Unfortunately, “Newsies” on film flopped. But in 2012, Disney used its theatrical clout to introduce a more successful stage musical version on Broadway, which opened on March 29, 2012, and ended up grossing over $100M.
Now reconstituted for the stage with a new book by Harvey Fierstein, a rounded-out Tony-winning score by original composer Alan Menken and lyricist Jack Feldman, this rousing, eye-filling, song-and-dance period musical spectacular is the real deal, and proves itself a sentimental old-style Broadway chest-sweller of the first order. In our modern world of income inequality and union-busting, the David vs. Goliath tale of children taking on the titans of the publishing industry and coming out victorious is a feel-good story for all ages.
Building on the popularity of the film, Menken and Feldman retained many of its songs, while writing six new numbers for the stage, and Fierstein introduced a crusading, novice reporter, a charming and feisty headturner named Katherine (Allison Sheppard in a standout performance), who adds a twist to the story and also serves as a love interest for the leading man.
And now, with spring-loaded backflips, airborne spins, rambunctious kicks and balletic pivots, the rollicking musical has just cartwheeled into the Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts, via 3D Theatricals (Yes! They are back!) performing through Sunday, May 29th. Directed by T.J. Dawson with original electrifying Broadway choreography recreated by Chaz Wolcott, the show is a high-energy explosion of song and dance from a giant ensemble cast of actors playing adorable kids, led by a lanky, lively Dillon Klena as Jack Kelly. It’s “Oliver!” meets “Annie” all over with quasi-breakdance moves.
Decked out in their distressed newsboy hats and vests, these are musically gifted urchins executing grand jetes through the ersatz streets of Manhattan. It’s extremely earnest and more than a little corny, but there’s an innocence about it that makes it irrepressible and irresistible. You’d hate yourself for criticizing it. It would be like kicking a puppy.
Joseph Pulitzer (Norman Large) and William Randolph Hearst (who we don’t meet) are the bad guys in “Newsies,” taking advantage of the children who hawk their papers by increasing the cost they pay per bundle in order to shore up their bottom line. In the fine tradition of “Norma Rae,” Jack (a charismatic Mr. Klena), spunky and endearing best buddy Crutchie (Kyle Frattini), so named because he struggles with a limp, and his young, ragtag crew decide they're not going to take it anymore and hurriedly form a union to go out on strike.
The newest newsboy among them, Davey (Rod Bagheri) has a keen intellect and maps out a strategy. He is the yang to artistic Jack's yin, and pairs convincingly with his little brother Les, a wisecracking, deadpan child prodigy played appealingly by Colton Dorfman, creating a darling duo who frequently spark the story.
Mobilized by the brawn of the popular Jack and the brains of the more reticent Davey, the young newsies are initiated into the fine arts of unionizing and business negotiations. Together the newsboys organize a citywide campaign which eventually includes child laborers from a broad spectrum of employers, virtually shutting down New York City and arousing the attention of Governor Teddy Roosevelt (Allen Everman) himself (you might remember that Theodore’s fifth cousin, Franklin, played a similar role in “Annie”). Oh, there’s a few Dickensian villains hanging around, for sure, but none who never look very threatening, and Medda Larkin, a helpful burlesque queen played by a fabulous Carrie Compere offers assistance for the boys, as well as some soulful vocals ("That's Rich").
The staging of the dance numbers is inventive and often spectacular, none better than "Seize the Day," when the newsies stomp around on tear sheets and perform acrobatic feats. And "Santa Fe" is a showcase of complex sentiment and yearning, featuring Jack and Crutchie as they dream a way out. Director Dawson helms the production perfectly and is joined by a marvelous creative team: Bruce Brockman (original scenic design), Dixon Reynolds (original costume design), Yean-Yves Tessler (lighting), Julie Ferrin (sound), and Andrew Nagy (projections).
The focal point of the stage is a three-level structure that looks like an erector set with steps to each tier. It is reconfigured to represent many locations—tenement fire escapes, a theatre's backstage and the Brooklyn Bridge, among others—and lighting and projections add to its versatility.
If the Mace-faced gutterpups (who, by now are probably occupying Wall Street) are looking for a coherent, singable anthem, they can take their pick: “Newsies” has a satchel full of ‘em, all beguilingly vague (“The World Will Know,” “Once and For All”), all seditiously catchy. These are songs that take their cues from the hard-sell tactics of the show’s title characters, feisty lads of the urban jungle who make their living on the streets pushing the papes. And if attracting the attention of potential customers requires yelling, pushing and pandering to baser sentimental instincts, well, a boy’s gotta do what a boy’s gotta do.
But that doesn’t stop them from burning energy like toddlers on a sugar high at a birthday party. They simply keep coming at us in full-speed-ahead phalanxes, fortified by every step in a Broadway-by-the-numbers dance book. There are back flips, cartwheels, somersaults and kick lines galore, not to mention enough pirouettes to fill a whole season of “Swan Lake.”
Throughout the show, Mr. Klena shines as the brave, brooding charismatic union organizer. Able backup comes from Mr. Bagheri as Jack’s better-bred eventual comrade, Davey, whose level-headed reasoning balances Jack’s passionate volatility; Mr. Frattini as the upbeat semi-disabled Crutchie, as well as Mr. Dorfman as Davey’s plucky kid brother, Les. And Mr. Large stays just on the right side of cartoonish villainy as Joseph Pulitzer. There are plenty of complications, as one would expect in any strike, like tough scabs, strikebreakers, and even Pulitzer himself using intimidation and roughhousing, along with his cronies.
The chemistry between the two main leads is scorching as they render their ballad, “Something to Believe In,” and Ms. Sheppard’s feisty solo, “Watch What Happens,” just before the break neatly establishes her spirited nature. And, in high flying style, picturesquely garbed in raggedy pantaloons, short trousers, knickers, newsboy Scally caps and vests, the smudge-faced ensemble whirls energetically through the clattering second-act opening tap number with Katherine in “King of New York,” a perfect number to hum on the drive home.
WITH: DILLON KLENA, ALLISON SHEPPARD, NORMAN LARGE, ROD BAGHERI, CARRIE COMPERE, COLTON DORFMAN, KYLE FRATTINI, RYAN ADDISON, CANDICE ROCHELLE BERGE, LUCAS BLANKENHORN, ROREY CHAVARRIA, LOUIS REYES CHAVEZ, ALLEN EVERMAN, JAMES EVERTS, JEFF GARRIDO, DAVID KIRK GRANT, CALLUM GUGGER, BRANDON TAYLOR JONES, PHILLY KANG, JONATHAN KIM (Dance Captain), ANTHONY KLINNER, RYAN MARKS, ANNEKE MAY, ARIEL SILVANA MURILLO, DANIEL PETERS, MATTHEW RYAN, IAN SCHMOKE, D.J. SMITH, SCOTT SPRAAGS, JENNA STOCKS, RICO VELAZQUEZ, PAUL ZELHART.
THE DESIGN TEAM: Scenic Design BRUCE BROCKMAN; Lighting Design JEAN-YVES TESSIER; Sound Design JULIE FERRIN; Costume Design DIXON REYNOLDS; Projection Design ANDREW NAGY; Hair/Wig/Makeup Design PETER HERMAN; Prop Coordination GRETCHEN MORALES & MELANIE CAVANESS; Casting AMBER J. SNEAD & LINDSAY BROOKS; Production Stage Manager TALIA KRISPEL.
It’s hard not to like an upbeat tale about a group of young foundlings, mostly orphaned, who beat the odds and win the day in such a vigorous David-and-Goliath style victory. For what was essentially designed to be a charming family musical, Newsies turned out to be one of the most ardently pro-union films since “Norma Rae.” Its signature song, “Seize the Day,” speaks to the core idea of individuals being stronger together, fighting against the bullying tactics of the too rich and powerful. As the show’s lyrics potently remind us, “One for all and all for one.”
“NEWSIES,” Produced by 3D Theatricals, Playing at Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts through May 29th. Performances are Fridays, Saturdays at 8PM; Saturdays, Sundays at 2PM (Addt’l performance: Thur, May 26 at 7:30PM.
Arts & Entertainment Reviewer
The Show Report