Catey Sullivan has been writing about Chicago theater for more than 25 years. She is a contributing writer at Crain’s Chicago, Chicago Magazine and the Chicago Sun-Times. She’s been published in Playbill, Pioneer Press, the Chicago Tribune and numerous other outlets. She has an MFA from the University of Illinois.
By Catey Sullivan
The primary selling point for Disney’s “Newsies” has always been its choreography. In the Broadway incarnation and national tour that followed, the titular urchins hustling to sell “papes” in late 19th century New York City hustled with the athleticism of elite gymnasts. Watching the all-ensemble dance numbers in the show is akin to watching Olympic gymnasts tumble through their floor exercises. The plot is pure cheese (and Kraft singles at that), but the barrage of backflips and round-offs and double-twisting layouts has long made “Newsies” well worth watching.
Sadly, the Marriott Lincolnshire staging of “Newsies” has cut back on the signature moves that make the show worthwhile. The production still calls for some dare-devilry, but the wow-factor is mostly missing in director/choreographer Alex Sanchez’ staging. “Newsies” is an innocuous way to kill a couple of hours if you happen to be in the neighborhood and have $50 to burn. But it’s not a show worth going out of your way to see.
The choreography isn’t the only issue. “Newsies” (music by Alan Menken, lyrics by Jack Feldman, book by Harvey Fierstein ) Disneyfies the brutality the newsboys were up against and the desperation that defined their lives. The show is as shiny as a new penny and as upbeat as an episode of “Zoom.”
You’d never know the apple-cheeked, well-scrubbed, smiling children at the plot’s core were based on starving, homeless, filthy wretches prey to the worst kinds of exploitation. “Newsies” makes hunger, child abuse and slave labor (which is pretty much what the children provided for robber barons such as Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer) look more fun than summer camp.
When the kids decide to go on strike in “Newsies,“ there’s no believable sense of urgency or despair. Their uprising plays as a romp, an adventure that’s as exhilarating as a Coney Island roller coaster ride. The stakes are never real in “Newsies,” because the newsies all act and sound as if they’re out for a rollicking fine day in a theme park. Pulitzer and his ilk were ruthless and vicious. They did not, per the musical, turn into genial, grandfatherly figures at the culmination of the strike.
“Newsies” doesn’t stop with simply sanitizing the working conditions of 1899 beyond the point of historical recognition. The plot throws in a love story for good measure, with the head of the newsies finding true love with none other than Pulitzer’s spunky (because of course she is) daughter.
Still, “Newsies” gasp-worthy original choreography at least made the show exciting to watch. There’s a thrill to seeing unbridled athleticism unleashed within the confines of a crowded, kinetic stage. But either the Marriott couldn’t find enough gymnast/dancers to do the show justice, or it just didn’t care to. Sanchez’ choreography is pleasing, but it’s not spectacular. And spectacular is what one needs with “Newsies.”
It doesn’t help that the score plays like a poor person’s “Les Miserables.” There’s no waving flags or towering barricades in “Seize the Day,” but it’s clear the song is going for the same, David-vs-Goliath-triumph-of-the-human-spirit effect. In the inevitable comparison between righteousness-seeking ensemble numbers, “Newsies” comes up short.
The Marriott cast – while an adequate, genial bunch – is about as memorable as yesterday’s sack lunch. It’s not their fault. The problem is that every last character in “Newsies” is a generic stereotype, from the wholesome, big-brother-to-all activist-in-chief Jack Kelly (Patrick Rooney) to the preciously cute “gimp” Crutchie (Matthew Uzarraga).
Rooney is as wholesome as pie and has a fine voice capable of delivering both wistful ballads (“Santa Fe”) and inspirational rabble-rousers (“Raise the Banner, “Seize the Day.”) Uzarraga’s voice is startlingly powerful. He’s not out of middle school yet, but he’s got the pipes of a star.
Amid the boys onstage, “Newsies” has two supporting female characters. Katherine (Eliza Palasz) is ostensibly trying to forge a career as a reporter, but as the plot unfolds, it becomes clear that the most important things in her life are A) falling in love with Jack and B) helping Jack. There’s also a burlesque queen named Hedda (Stephanie Pope). Like Katherine, Hedda’s career is seen only as a device for helping the “Newsies.” Yes, I know. “Newsies” is about the newsies, not Hedda or Katherine. That said, the paucity of women onstage is grating, and it becomes all the more so when you realize the women aren’t allowed to do anything except help the boys.
In all, there’s nothing egregiously displeasing about “Newsies.” But it’s sanitized pablum. It’s as much about the newsboy strike of 1899 as “The Lion King” is about daily life in, say, Uganda. And minus the heart-stopping choreography of the original, there’s just not a lot to recommend about it.