Paper-Thin Newsies Is Big On Talent

Disney’s Newsies, currently playing at the Cadillac Palace Theatre, provides a strikingly relevant exploration of current conversations about workers’ rights, despite its period milieu. Set in 1899 and based on the 1992 musical film about the real-life Newsboy Strike in New York City, Newsies combines song and dance to tell the story of Jack Kelly (Joey Barreiro), an orphan and newsboy who becomes the leader of a strike when newspaper publishers raise the cost of the “papes” he sells to stay alive.

Despite the potential for a riveting period musical ala Ragtime or Les Miserables, Newsies trades story and theme for dance. The book, by Harvey Fierstein, feels stretched thin. We follow Jack as he leads a strike, pursues his passion for painting, and falls in love with the fiery Katherine (Morgan Keene). We witness Katherine’s burgeoning journalism career and the sacrifices she makes in the name of justice. We learn about Pulitzer’s motivations to increase the cost of the newspapers and see Crutchie (Andy Richardson) sing a ballad after he is captured and imprisoned during a protest. We meet a vaudeville theater owner and hear her sing of her relationship to the wealthy who sit in her audience.

With so much going on, it is hard to think of any one event as much more than a box to check in a disappointingly formulaic musical. And while there are times that Alan Mencken and Jack Feldman’s score advances the plot forward, some of these plot points (Jack sings of his dreams of moving west) are abandoned in the musical’s final moments, when Jack gets a happy ending that is everything but his stated goal in the show’s opening number. This could be read as a transformation resulting from the strike, but with Jack serving more as a loose connection between characters and stories, it’s hard to feel that he’s truly gone through a journey.

What is sacrificed in story is, for the most part, made up in Newsies’ spectacle. Tony Award-winning choreography Christopher Gatelli’s work is extraordinary. Newsboys defy gravity, execute flips, and perform incredibly intricate footwork while dancing on newspapers. It may contribute little to the overall story, but it sure is exciting to watch.

Also exciting to watch are the show’s stand-out performers, who bring a verve to the material not wholly present in the piece’s music. Barreiro and Keene act the hell out of their scenes together and perform each character’s pivotal songs with talent and nuance. Other excellent performances come from Steve Blanchard as Pulitzer  and 9-year-old Turner Birthisel as Les, who steals the show with his strong sense of comedic timing.

Equally impressive is the show’s set design by Tobin Ost. Ost has managed to create structures that read as different settings with minor positional adjustments, and also provide some exciting opportunities for director Jeff Calhoun to use three stories to great effect. Sven Ortel’s creative projection designs complement Ost’s work and provide the visuals necessary to conjure a world where print media was king.

While there is a timeliness to Newsies’ storyline–and some notable similarities between the greedy Pulitzer and a current business mogul–I couldn’t help but leave the theater feeling that the musical, as a whole, falls a bit flat. Everyone in the show is doing their best, and much of the work could be quite energizing. However, with multiple story threads that dilute the focus of the narrative and a surprisingly unmemorable score, Newsies pales in comparison to other Disney-helmed musical juggernauts.

Brent Eickhoff
Brent Eickhoff

Brent Eickhoff is a Chicago-based director, writer, and educator. Brent has worked with A Red Orchid Theatre, Mary-Arrchie Theatre Co., The Arc Theatre, The Public House Theatre, Something Marvelous, Whiskey Radio Hour, and The Burrowers. He is the Educational Coordinator for Silk Road Rising, and is a founder and co-artistic director of Blue Goose Theatre Ensemble. While Brent has worked with a variety of Chicago theatre artists, he doesn't let that get in the way of writing unbiased reviews of any production he covers.