Disney’s ‘Newsies’ Is All About the Dancing

The cast of 'Newsies,' photo by Mark Kitaoka

My earnest, longstanding childhood love affair with Christian Bale ended the day he started talking shit about Newsies. Bale starred in the 1992 Disney movie musical, a critical flop written by Bob Tzudiker and Noni White with music by Jack Feldman and Alan Menken. The story is based on the very real newsboys’ strike of 1899, when dirt-poor working kids in New York organized to successfully strike against publishing industry titans such as Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst. Whether he likes it now or not, Bale led the movie as Jack Kelly, a charismatic city boy with dreams of wide open spaces. He sang, he danced, he fought the power—and I was in love.

The stage adaptation of Newsies, which opened on Broadway in 2012 and is now running at Village Theatre directed by Steve Tomkins, somehow makes even less sense than the movie did. But that’s not exactly a bad thing. Boasting a new book by Harvey Fierstein, it’s even Disney-er than the original: bright, cartoonish, high-energy, low-subtlety, the good guys are better, the bad guys meaner and the love story shoehorned in. So yes, it’s a silly, cheesy, paint-by-numbers musical, but it knows that—it does what it does and it does it well. If you love heavy-handed inspirational messaging and big ol’ athletic song-and-dance numbers, this is a show for you.

Lights up on an early morning, New York City rooftop where Jack Kelly (Joey Barriero) and his friend Crutchie (Michael Krenning) have been sleeping. Their ballad “Santa Fe,” an ode to Jack’s dream town out West, far from the grimy city, is like an emotional cold open for the show—things really get started with the next song, “Carrying the Banner,” as this motley crew of kids gets ready to start their day hawking newspapers to make a living. It’s the first of many high-energy ensemble numbers, for which Katy Tabb has crafted excellent and acrobatic choreography full of jump splits and cartwheels and endless pirouettes, fists thrusting into the air and toes extending toward the sky. (Conversely, when the cast doesn’t have choreography or clear activity they look aimless, milling about with no physical specificity or direction.)

As the kids get their newspapers, newcomers Davey (Mike Spee) and his little brother Les (Guthrie Greenwood Bettinger) join them, unusual because they’re just working while their father recovers from an on-the-job accident and then it’s back to school.

Meanwhile, Pulitzer (Greg Stone) decides to raise the prices that Newsies pay for their papers to boost revenue in response to falling circulation. So evil! Also evil, the man from the children’s home (read: jail) who is after Jack. Not evil: Medda Larkin (Marlette Buchanan), theatre owner, star and friend of Jack who lets him hunker down in her theatre. Also not evil: Katherine (Taylor Niemeyer), an ambitious young reporter who tells Jack to leave her alone in the theatre. He ignores her, and that is supposed to be charming and romantic. “Oh no, this story is about sexual assault,” whispered my friend. She makes a good point: Disney, cut that shit out.

Anyway, the Newsies are sick of getting ground down by the powers that be, so they get to work organizing all the New York newsboys to go on strike. There are bribes and fights and chase scenes, Teddy Roosevelt makes an appearance and that’s not even the weirdest twist. It’s all too much.

But who needs plot, we’re here for the dance numbers, of which there are many, and they’re all reprised, often immediately—big number, big finish, big applause, right back into the number again. Every member of this ensemble is a wildly talented dancer, but watching them I couldn’t help but notice a big difference between those who can convincingly dance in character and those who look like they just have a grubby face in ballet class. As the cigar-chomping Race, Rico Lastrapes pulls off the impressive feat of moving like a downtown kid—relaxed shoulders, loose neck—and nailing his moves, as did standout dancers Trevor Hansen and Davione Gordon.

Joey Barriero is a casting coup for Jack; fresh from the Newsies first national tour, he’s got charisma to spare and his voice cuts easily through a grueling vocal role. Spee sings equally well as Davey, and it’s a pleasure to watch him grow from rule-follower to revolutionary over the course of the show.

Any role that isn’t a Newsie is pretty thankless—Buchanan brought a sly, wry humor to Medda, but had a rough vocal trip through her big number “That’s Rich.” Stone sings gloriously as Pulitzer, but his clunky acting undercut his villainy, and he’s mistaking overly wet Ts for an upper-class accent. Katherine’s musically interesting song about writer’s block, “Watch What Happens,’ is quick and full of clever patter and Niemeyer is killing it, but I wish the writers had actually taken this one chance to get to know our female “protagonist.”

So, the performances are uneven and the plot will break your eyebrows with all the raising, but I still kind of loved it. Newsies is very kid-friendly and thus some of the most obvious, telegraphed feel-goodery around, but it’s so fun and earnest and true to itself that you’ve just gotta go with it. And damn can these kids dance.

Newsies runs at Village Theatre in Issaquah through Dec. 31, and in Everett from Jan. 5 – 28.