It’s new show season at the Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire, and we were there for the opening night of their latest play, Newsies. Set at a time when fat cats with no scruples still somehow managed to occupy their thrones, art comes along to provide a cautionary tale of those who rule with an iron fist and no morals. Newsies, a 2012 stage adaptation of a cult-classic 1992 Disney movie, puts viewers in turn-of-the-century New York City as the newsboys of the time fight against the newspaper titans over fair labor practices.
This play is taken from the pages of history, though some names and faces are added/changed or exaggerated. The strike really happened, over much the same issue (a price rise per paper or “pape” for the newsboys) but was settled in a compromise after the initial strike action. The hero of the story—Jack Kelly in the musical (played at Marriott by Patrick Rooney), Jack Kelly-Sullivan (Christian Bale) in the movie, is often rumored to have not played as major a part as he does in Disney’s account, but in the worlds of film and theater, a little embellishment isn’t out of place.
It doesn’t sound like a page out of the Disney playbook but add (originally) Christian Bale as the charismatic leader of the pack, a spindly kid on crutches, who, unsurprisingly, is known as Crutchy, a love interest and a kid with a family also on the rocks due to unfair labor practices, and it’s ready to roll. The play takes liberties with the original film, adding some meat, deepening some characters and adding music and dance scenes, and the cast at the Marriott Lincolnshire runs with the extra material, for better or worse. The result is a very entertaining, energetic play that I’d even characterize at times as emotional.
Marriott’s casts often have musical chops to spare, and this is true with very few exceptions in Newsies. Patrick Rooney, who plays Jack Kelly, the main protagonist, has a clear-as-a-bell voice that warms up any dark corner of the theater, and can rarely be found missing a beat. He’s also light on his feet, which is incredibly important for this show, as everyone involved spends a lot of time acting inside elaborate dance numbers. The choreography was exciting, if simultaneously sometimes cliché for the genre, but not as together as other productions we’ve seen on opening day at the Marriott. That said, though, there’s a lot of fantastic dancing to see and the musical numbers pack quite a punch.
One of our favorite enhancements from film to musical was the deepening of the relationship and expansion of the character of Crutchy. Matthew Uzarraga plays the expansion well, with a fiery attitude that’s never annoying (where the same cannot be said for his film counterpart). Instead, Crutchy forms the foundation of a family Jack is searching for, even as he dreams of greener (?) pastures in Santa Fe, in song of course. Uzarraga is the most likeable, comical, sympathetic character in the early portion of the show, even over charismatic Jack.
Another real standout was Miss Medda, the vaudeville showgirl who runs her own show. Medda is another character whose role was expanded for the play into more of a benefactor, mentor and provider of sanctuary for Jack, and the casting could not have been better. Stephanie Pope explodes onto the stage, all bright colors and eyelashes and bathes the dingy city in her light. She is funny, sultry and fully realized, and the audience has little time to do anything to resist her charms. She’s as beautiful a dancer as she is a wry comedienne, and she adds an extra layer of sparkle to a play that could use that sort of dazzle.
A final nod should be directed at Eliza Palasz, cast as Katherine Plumber, the fiery yet insecure A&E writer who aspires to be something more. She’s a fine counter to Jack Kelly’s Casanova ways, quick-witted and funny, and there’s much more to Palasz’s portrayal than a rote love interest with a side plot. Her real shining moment came with “Watch What Happens.” It was already an incredibly catchy and endearing tune by Alan Mencken but I found that I actually preferred Palasz’s version to Kara Lindsay’s in the original Broadway cast, as much due to a subtler approach to the comedic lyrics as it is to her overall demeanor as Katherine. Eliza is key to the show and save for a few vocal foibles in the very high reaches of her range, nails it with the spirit of the character—young, inspired, outraged and insecure all at once, while very much in love.
If casting was strong, some other decisions were questionable, such as the employ of various heavy accents. The general New York accent was fine with most of the ensemble cast, but both Nick Graffagna’s Davey and Kevin Gudahl’s performance as Pulitzer are hurt by over-the-top accents that overshadow dialogue and character moments. In addition, Bill Bannon’s Snyder was hurt by consistently fumbled lines. Set design was simple but effective, and the space was used well. I particularly enjoy the “in the round” effect of the Marriott Theatre. Choreography and the live orchestra music were fantastic.
Newsies is a play you will enjoy. There are some rough corners to be smoothed and some performances to be tightened up, but overall, it’s an energetic, relevant and poignant musical with plenty of fantastic dance numbers, and a not too cliché love story with a backbone of historical significance and political relevance that help make it more than simply Disney fluff. Newsies is playing now at the Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire and will run through December 31. For more information on the show and to purchase tickets, click here.