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Chicago by John Olson

Newsies
Oriental Theatre


The Cast
Chicago has recently been the target of an ad campaign by Actor's Equity urging theatergoers to "ask if it's Equity," ("look for the union label," if you will). How ironic it would be if this first national tour of Newsies, the story of the 1899 New York newsboy strike were a non-Equity tour. It is Equity, though, and although a good many of the young ensemble players lack Broadway credits, there's no denying these young singer-dancers are delivering a real Broadway-caliber product. Most of us presumably have at least seen Newsies casts performing the show's "Seize the Day" or "King of New York" on network telecasts of the Tony Awards or the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade if not the original Broadway production, and have a basis for comparison. Whatever else one might think of the musical, it's an awe-inspiring dance show, with the big ensemble of boy or boyish dancers displaying precision and athleticism in executing Christopher Gattelli's Tony Award winning dances. You could call them a boy version of the Rockettes, but between their gymnastic flips and their tap-dance moves they do so much more.

This cast is led by Dan DeLuca as young union leader Jack Kelly, and he has no trouble providing the energy and charisma to lead the train. He has a distinctive singing voice, one that's a little throaty and nasal and not exactly pretty but fits the character and works with the street-smart New Yawk accents of the show's Lower East Side setting. A sweeter-sounding voice is found in Jacob Kemp, who plays Davey, the earnest boy who takes his kid brother Les (the charming Vincent Crocilla, alternating with Anthony Rosenthal) out on the streets to earn money to make up for their unemployed dad's loss of income. Stephanie Style is the spunky young reporter with a secret who provides a love interest for Jack, and she keeps up with the boys with no trouble. Among the "grown-ups," there's solid character work, starting with Beauty and the Beast's Steve Blanchard, who plays the chief villain—real-life newspaper magnate Joseph Pulitzer, who sparks the strike when he raises the newsies' costs of newspapers. Blanchard has a great baritone and the comic chops to create a real Disney-style villain. Nearly as nasty are Jon Hacker, John E. Brady and Bill Bateman as various Pulitzer henchmen, while Kevin Carolan makes a portly Teddy Roosevelt come in and save the day for the newsies.

Newsies' plot is true to the Disney musical formula in which young people vanquish a villain and achieve their wish. The characters are as thin as usual. Even so, it's an admirably subversive take on the Disney formula. Here we have a real villain—at least one that was once a real person, rather than The Little Mermaid's purple-skinned sea witch Ursula or The Lion King's Scar. And the story of poorly paid workers organizing to fight for better conditions has its parallels today—most obviously in the recent efforts of New York's fast food workers to gain better wages. So, even if the historical facts have been softened for a family audience, there's still mention of the horrendous conditions of child laborers at the turn of the century. It's a fable, but a political one. In this era of union-busting, will kids or their parents catch it or just get caught up in the fun and showmanship of it?

The Alan Menken-Jack Feldman score makes no effort to incorporate a period sound but it has an energy appropriate for the newsboys, and director Jeff Calhoun makes sure the sprits and pace never wane. Tobin Ost's set—a rotating three-level grid of porches and fire escapes—along with Jess Goldstein's costumes and the projections adapted by Daniel Brodie from Sven Ortel's originals take us into Manhattan's Lower East Side of 1899. It's an idealized take of the era: a sort of "Bowery Boys" set to music. It was a hard-knock life for the real newsies, but it's an awfully good time for us.

Newsies will play the Oriental Theatre, 24 W. Randolph, Chicago, through January 4, 2015. For tickets and information, visit www.BroadwayinChicago.com or call 800-775-2000. For more information on the tour, visit www.newsiesthemusical.com.


Photo: Deen Van Meer

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-- John Olson



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