Last season, TMP ended with a sweet and velvety production of Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast.” This year, TMP opens with “Newsies,” another Disney piece. Both were musically scored by Alan Menken, who additionally did music for “The Little Mermaid” and “Aladdin.”
Where “Beauty and the Beast” was a fairy tale, “Newsies” is almost a socialist drama. True to the Disney ethos, however, virtue triumphs and all parties are reconciled in the end. There is also, of course, a touching, class-bridging love story in the mix. The musical touches on issues of class struggle, child labor, child internment and police brutality. In a Dickensian version of turn-of-the-century New York, there is a Robin Hood quality to the story as well.
“Newsies” is one of those odd cases in which the film version of the musical preceded the stage version. The 1992 musical comedy-drama starring Christian Bale, David Moscow, Bill Pullman, Robert Duvall and Ann Margret featured songs by Menken and J.A.C. Redford. Initially a box office bomb, the movie went on to become a cult classic and was brought to the Broadway stage in 2012. The show was nominated for eight Tony Awards and won for Best Choreography and Best Original Score.
The story is based on the New York Newsboy Strike of 1899, sparked when the newsboys, who had to buy their own papers to sell, were forced to pay more for each copy. The system forced the newsboys to suffer the cost for unsold copies of their “papes.”
The TMP production is directed by Jon Douglas Rake, musically directed by Jeffrey Stvrtecky, choreographed by Megan Hicks and features a fantastic set design by Blake R. York (a busy man as – across town – he also did sets and is starring in Tacoma Little Theater’s production of “The Foreigner”). Janet English’s costumes – knickerbockers, suspenders and newsboy hats done in earth tones and muted plaids – are also visually appealing.
The show is a bundle of energy, featuring big dance numbers involving a large ensemble cast that leaps and twirls and flies through the air. Gender neutral casting for the ensemble allows for some great female dancers like Sarahlynn Mangan, Jasmine Wright, Madison Wingerter-Ripley, Heather Arneson, Kayli Christine, Noelle Dawson and Jill Heinecke to show off their skills.
Jake Atwood, a TMP favorite, stars ad Jack Kelly, the would-be artist who functions as leader of the newsboys and starts the newsboys’ strike. He is aided by Davey and Les, played by Colin Briskey and Howy Howard respectively. Briskey is another talent known to TMP audiences for his cool and confident singing voice. Howard, however, steals the show with his bright humor. Most of the laughs in the show belong to this young rising star.
Jack’s love interest, Katherine, is played by the lovely Ashley Koon. With dimples and sparkling eyes, Koon is sweet in the role of the young reporter who falls in love with the subject of her story. It is nice to see her step up into a prominent role in this production. Her bejeweled lyrics blend wonderfully with others in duets and intimate group songs.
Deanna Martinez, another TMP alum, plays Medda Larkin, a theater owner and sultry nightlife singer modeled on Mae West. At one point, she goes down into the audience and flirts with some of the men, shooting everyone a telling eye roll at the nervous response of a man down front.
In an example of theatrical cross pollination, the Lakewood Playhouse’s John Munn plays Joseph Pulitzer, the fat cat newspaper man who tries to increase profits on the backs of the newsboys. In the end, however, he is able to see reason and comes to a compromise with Jack. Munn looks like he belongs in the trappings of an American Captain of Enterprise.
Director Jon Douglas Rake makes a jovial appearance as Theodore Roosevelt, who was governor of New York at the time of the strike.
The cast of the play is so big and so good that we’d be here til the cows come home if I were to give praise to each and every one.
TMP’s “Newsies” is filled with numerous high points. I got chills during “The World Will Know,” an anthem of unionization. The song features the memorable line, “the things we do today will be tomorrow’s news.” It is a victory shout of self-assertion on the part of those who are taken for granted and under estimated.
“Seize the Day,” which starts off being sung by trio Jack, Davey and Les, builds into a huge ensemble affair. “Strike! Strike! Strike! Strike! Strike! Strike!” sings the cast as they begin to march to the martial rhythm of snare drums. At one point, the newsboys dance by sliding around with sheets of newspaper under their feet. It is also during this number that Summit Geiselman made a splash with a spectacular, flying leap like a ballet star.
“Something to Believe In” is the duet between Jack and Katherine in which the pair discovers that they have fallen in love with each other, despite the class chasm between them. She is an heiress and he is a street urchin. Nevertheless, “love will do what it does,” according to the song.
“King of New York,” is marked by a great big tap dancing number that got the audience especially revved up. The cast members tap dance while seated on chairs and across the tops table tops. Koon does her tap dancing in high heels. At the end of the dance, the cast formed a final tableau that brought thunderous applause.
At times this celebration of the rise of disenfranchised kids could have been something from Soviet Russia; the noble rising up of the workers — socialist theater. But this is also an old story, and an American story, this struggle of the working class to resist those that would take advantage of them, the quest for a better life. The nostalgic quality of the presentation is telling of the decline of union membership and a spirit of apathy loose in the population these days. In our own time, people seem to have become too much held in thrall by their digital toys to be bothered with things as simple voting. How would something like a general strike ever get off the ground in times like these?
Baked into the story, however, are social issues that speak to the contemporary climate. Snyder the Spider (Peter Seto), for example, runs a for-profit prison for children. His mode of operation is to catch children (echoes of the child-catcher in “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang”) and lock them up so that he can pocket most of the money that he is paid by the state for their care. The problem of allowing a profit interest to function within the internment business and the image of children kept in cages are not unknown to us today.
In the end, the newsboys and their sympathizers are able to broaden their strike into a “children’s crusade” and understand themselves to be struggling on behalf of all child laborers.
In so doing, they enlist all those of goodwill to their cause.
TMP’s “Newsies” is a great, lively romp that sweeps you up and carries you along from beginning to end. After it is over, the sensation is akin to getting off a fun roller coaster ride. All you can do is look at the person next to you and say, “Wow, that was fun.” TMP’s new season is off with a bang.
“Newsies” runs through Oct. 7. For more information on tickets and scheduling, visit tmp.org.