By Jeff Ritter
Disney’s “Newsies” is a show that succeeds despite some peculiarities within the story. Because it’s based on an actual historical event from 1899, one shouldn’t dwell too much on why Disney would have ever conceived of the idea for the original film, a 1992 box office failure, much less convert it to a stage production with the book by Harvey Fierstein, music by Alan Menken and lyrics by Jack Feldman.
Instead, one should contact the Next Generation Theatre Company and grab enough seats for the family. Their production of “Newsies” at the James J. Eagan Civic Center is high-energy excitement from beginning to end.
The plot is simple: boys and girls from every neighborhood in New York’s five boroughs buy Joseph Pulitzer’s newspapers every morning and spend long hours trying to sell every paper to finish the day with a tiny profit. Pulitzer decides to raise the cost of his papers by a dime per hundred, but in 1899 a dime went a long way. Like a precursor to a classic ’80s rock anthem, the kids decide they’re not going to take it anymore.
They loosely organize themselves into a union, kill Pulitzer’s paper sales and cause major disruptions to the usual hustle and bustle of New York, eventually even grabbing the attention of then-state governor Teddy Roosevelt. Yes folks, a bunch of poor ragamuffins beat one of the biggest newspaper magnates in our nation’s history in a labor war! What did you do today?
Portraying these plucky youngsters is a very large cast of talented performers. Their leader, Jack Kelly, is played by Matthew Riordan. He packs a big emotional punch into his performance, maintaining a streetwise “New Yawk” accent even in his songs. He pairs well with Leigha Stockton, who plays reporter Katherine Plumber. The duo displayed good chemistry and sounded wonderful together on “Something to Believe In.”
Rounding out the newsies leadership ranks are Matthew Cox who is stellar as Crutchie, Jack Erbs as Davey and Max Slavik as Les. Neighborhood vaudeville/burlesque theatre maven Medda Larkin, played by the dazzling Brenda Bass, aids the gang. Folks were raving about her song “That’s Rich,” which is sadly her only featured number. Always underrated Joel Hackbarth brings that vile, original one-percenter and enemy of child labor, Joe Pulitzer, to life in a very believable and uncompromising portrayal.
The rest of the cast, sometimes crowding the stage all at once, were remarkable for their exceptional choreography and clear singing voices as a huge ensemble. Many times a cast this large singing together just projects a wall of vaguely comprehensible sound, but this group is actually easy understood.
Some of them also play multiple roles, so to avoid repetition (the program is a little hard to follow), they’re listed here without their associated roles. However, Andrew Maroney, who plays Race, is a manic powderkeg on stage. His “tough guy in a small frame” persona was tremendous, and he showed great instincts for both physical and verbal comedy. Maroney is a name worth keeping on your radar,
In fact, they really all are: Corey Fraine, Braden Stille, DJ Wojciehowski, Isaiah Henry, Rebekah Side, Conrad Powell, Joel “You’re A Good Man Charlie Brown” Brown, Mia Polittle, Andrea Brown, Justin Harris, Jess Gerst, Kellen Green, Cami Dummerth, Hayden Rodgers, Justin Harris, Mica Tharp, Caitlin Sauors, Trey Ball, Brandan Janssen, Sabrina Furman, Gabriel Maupin, Graham Woodward, Jeffrey Furman, Logan Brown, Aiden Kelly, Andrea Slavik, Elise Brubaker, Mackenzie Baum, Nya Martin, Gabby Diebold, Devon Shipley, Rebecca Walthall, Sarah Burke and Kate Shaefer (whew!) all earned their standing ovation through fantastic effort.
The choreography, by Assistant Choreographer Stephanie Voteau and Director Joe Elvis, is quite challenging for a large crowd of young actors in a relatively small space. Brian Ebbinghaus’ set design is purposefully stark yet evocative, and the ability to push and pull a section of NYC fire escape from the background to the forefront added depth and dimension to the stage. It’s the sort of thing you’d expect at the Fox Theatre when Disney themselves come to town, but to see that level of effort and execution at a community theatre production is particularly delightful.
If anything, my only small quibble was with the sound. I’m sure it is inevitable with this large of a cast and their high level of activity that a microphone or two might cut out in the middle of a line, but I felt at times that the sound levels of the band, huddled beneath the stage, drowned out some dialogue. Again, not a big deal, just something I’m sure Sound Designer Phillip Evan and Musical Director Meredith Todd will have ironed out by this weekend’s performances.
This weekend is the last weekend for Disney’s Newsies the Musical at the James J. Eagan Civic Center in Florissant, so grab some seats while you can. It’s a treat for all ages, with a story that still feels just slightly off-kilter from typical Disney fare. There is one scene with some pretty strong staged violence, but overall, it’s a fun production well worth seeing.