By Bradley Rohlf
While Disney’s “Newsies” is a relatively new stage musical, between the familiar songs from the film and the Muny production last season, it has become a well-known favorite. As the first community theater to present it here, Next Generation Theatre Company’s overall production quality is impressive.
Next Generation showcases many technical achievements, a full company of fine voices, and an energetic spectacle in dance. It is in spite of, and maybe because of the many large scale achievements, that I was surprised by some details that missed the mark.
The story is inspired by the real New York City newsboys strike at the turn of the 20th century. Matthew Riordan plays Jack Kelly, a newsboy living on the streets of New York. He is a bit older than most of the kids selling newspapers, all largely orphaned or otherwise parentless. He dreams of running away from his impoverished life in the big city to the fresh air out west in Santa Fe, but he is also a guardian figure to the newsies, and they are the closest thing he has to family.
Joel Hackbarth is Joseph Pulitzer, the publishing titan who is facing declining circulation. He decides to shore up his profits by increasing the price of the newspaper, but not to his end customers — instead to his distributors, the newsies who sell them.
Having witnessed the ongoing trolley strike, and with the help of an educated Davey, played by Jack Erbs, the newsies organize a strike.
Meanwhile, Leigha Stockton plays Katherine Plumber, a young journalist trying to get out of the social pages and break a real hard news story. She follows the newsies in their fight for fairer treatment.
Disney adapted the popular 1992 movie musical for the Broadway stage in 2011, winning Tony Awards for Best Choreography and Best Musical Score for Alan Menken in 2012.
As for the look, scenic designer Brian Ebbinghaus’ set is flawless. It immediately suggests the high rises of New York, and he made full use of the spacious Florissant Civic Center theater with sturdy multi-level rolling platforms.
Projected images and animations can be difficult to effectively and seamlessly weave into a stage performance, but Julie Merkle and Ryan Sharper do better than most. They image-mapped a few moments such as the headline chalkboard at the distribution yard, and an animation seen on the wall as Jack sketches a portrait of Katherine.
But with these apparent resources, it was surprising that they did not animate Jack writing the word “strike.” And while not a part of the action, the choice to project scrolling news text pre-show and during intermission was confusing as it was haphazardly thrown across whatever set pieces happened to be out, rather than across some flat surface or a scrim. Other theatergoers nearby audibly took time to figure out what it was.
Joe Elvis has directed and choreographed a capable and youthful cast in the dance-heavy show. The hallmark of “Newsies” is the focus on large-ensemble, choreography-heavy songs, and Elvis leans into making the most of these.
The company voices produce a wall of sound that fills the room, and there are strong elements of balance and bombast in the choreography, with one exception. The lyrics of ‘Carrying the Banner’ repeat the titular refrain quite often, and by marrying a single movement phrase to the words “It’s a fine life, carrying the banner,” the repetition is visually reinforced, giving the song the opportunity to grow stale rather than continuing to pull the audience in. Otherwise, there were some inventive moments in “Seize the Day,” and a showcase of footwork in “King of New York.”
Outside the strong ensemble, there were some standout individual performances as well. Stockton commands the stage with her interpretation of “Watch What Happens.” She brings a much needed comedic character-driven lift to a song that otherwise weighs on the show as late-in-the-act exposition.
Riordan maintains a consistent accent between singing and speaking, and displays moments of deep, wrought emotion.
I was disappointed that the show as a whole felt more like an emotional tone poem than a traditional narrative. Each song in its orchestration and melody does a good job of telling us how to feel, optimistic, sad, angry – but outside the show-stopping numbers, the actors’ performances did not give us a reason to connect to the characters.
For instance, Jack Kelly’s primary conflict in the story is the question of: ‘Do I run away to a life that will surely be better for me in Santa Fe, or do I stay and fight for what I have and for the newsies who are the closest thing I have to a family?’ But rather than communicating that, we just get the sense that the newsies are sad because they’re poor.
Next Generation clearly has access to some great resources, and mostly used them well. With such a talented company and technical team, the overlooked details were surprising. “Newsies” is far from a perfect show on paper, but there is a compelling narrative with room for nuance and deeper human connection than was glossed over in this production.
Next Generation Theatre Company presents “Newsies” Aug. 31 – Sept. 9, Friday and Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m., at the Florissant Civic Center Theatre. For tickets, call 314-921-5678 or www.nextgenerationtheatre.company.