Regional Reviews: Raleigh/Durham
As a film, Newsies was a box office dud, but it gathered a cult following over the years, and the Broadway production was highly anticipated. With music by Disney alumnus Alan Menken and lyrics by Jack Feldman, the story is inspired by the real-life newsboy strike of 1899 in New York City. A scrappy group of "newsies" led by Jack Kelly (a charismatic Jason Gotay) take on a newspaper Goliath in the form of Joseph Pulitzer (Broadway favorite Merwin Foard) after Pulitzer decides to increase his profits by hiking the cost to the newsies for a bundle of papers. Already barely scraping by, the boys decide that enough is enough and, inspired by other labor strikes, they decide to carry out their own. They are urged on by an up-and-coming female reporter named Katherine Plumber (a delightful Shannon O'Boyle), who not only genuinely supports their effort but also sees this as an opportunity for her to break into the male-dominated news reporting field.
The book by Broadway legend Harvey Fierstein tightens the story originally written for the screen by Bob Tzudiker and Noni White. Fierstein trades out the character of Bryan Denton (originally played by Bill Pullman in the film) for a female love interest in Katherine (a much needed feminine presence). All the wonderful songs Menken and Feldman wrote for the movie, including "Carrying the Banner," "Seize the Day," and "King of New York," have made it into the musical production, fleshed out with new material that is not as memorable but serves its purpose. The best of the new songs is Katherine's "Watch What Happens," humorously capturing her writer's block as she realizes the importance of the moment. In his first venture into musical theater, Jack Feldman proves himself to be an accomplished lyricist whose wit enlivens each song; the score eventually won the Tony in 2012. My only real complaint is that the musical opens with a ballad, leaving the energy rather low until the show-stopping "Carrying the Banner" arrives. Otherwise, the story is tight, with little opportunity for a lull.
Under the direction of Steve Bebout (making his North Carolina Theatre debut), this production is on par with national tours of Broadway productions. One of the strongest elements here is the set design by Bruce Brockman, which references the original Broadway iron scaffolding but supplements that with a more standard cityscape backdrop that rises and falls to convey changes in height. It is far more effective than the use of projections. Costumes by Dixon Reynolds add to period accuracy. Samuel Rushen's lighting design helps to guide the audience's eye effectively on what can be, at times, a rather cluttered stage.
In its original Broadway run, Newsies developed a reputation as a dance show, with its corps of actors playing newsboys doing unbelievable things while singing their hearts out. (That production won the Tony Award for Best Choreography as well.) Audience members having prior experience with the musical may enter with high expectations for the dancing, and choreographer Parker Esse delivers, though the first major dance number, the previously mentioned "Carrying the Banner," may disappoint in its lack of intensity and complexity. After that the dance work increases in quality.
Though the musical gathers multiple memorable characters with distinct personalities, it is truly Jack's story, and Jason Gotay wins hearts with ease, with his stunning vocals and handsome charm. Steve Raymond is a believable and lovable Crutchie. As Davey, Daniel Plimpton not only shows off an amazing voice but exceptional tap dancing skills. Davey's little brother Les is portrayed by the endearing Huck Borden. Shannon O'Boyle is spot-on as Katherine and makes use of every moment on the stage. Though Joseph Pulitzer is not seen a lot on the stage and has just one song, Broadway alumnus Merwin Foard's baritone is impressive and memorable. Another feminine touch in the production is the character of Medda Larkin, portrayed by North Carolina Theatre regular Yolanda W. Rabun. She practically brings down the house with her rendition of the music hall song, "That's Rich." Her voice combines the sexiness of Eartha Kitt with the power of Jennifer Hollidayshe is a true highlight.
Newsies has it all: a commanding story, energetic dancing, endearing love, witty humor, and a resonant message. The show reminds us that young people are capable of great things, and it is from them that we sometimes learn how to be true to ourselves and to each other.
Newsies, through July 29, 2018, at North Carolina Theatre in the Raleigh Memorial Auditorium, 2 East South St., Raleigh NC. Tickets can be purchased online at www.nctheatre.com or by phone at 919-831-6941, ext. 6944.
Music: Alan Menken