Everyone loves unwashed, under-parented urchins at the holidays. Scruffy street kids join Tiny Tim in singing carols to Ebenezer Scrooge, in hopes of earning a farthing. Annie and the orphans stage an unruly coup and charm Daddy Warbucks in time to unwrap presents in his mansion. Even the "Horrible Herdman" clan avoids the truant officer and finds some meaningful gifts to bring to "The Best Christmas Pageant Ever."
In that same vein, a battalion of scrappy paperboys, mostly homeless youth with hearts of gold, take on the newspaper tycoons of New York City this holiday season in the Skylight Music Theatre’s "Newsies," running through Dec. 29.
Underneath layers of Disney magic and the bouncy score by Alan Menken, "Newsies" is based on a true story. When Joseph Pulitzer’s daily, The New York World, was losing money in 1899, he tried to squeeze extra money out of those least able to afford it: the newsboys who sold papers on street corners. While the robber barons and champions of yellow journalism didn’t bat an eye at raising the price of papers by a few pennies, the "newsies" pushing "papes" rioted. Eventually this led to a city-wide strike that ultimately did improve conditions for the boys, although real child labor reform was decades away.
The resulting musical, a Broadway reincarnation of a '90s cinematic flop, is an underdog story about righteous young people fighting the man and the largely immigrant underclass taking a stab at the establishment fat cats. Directed by Molly Rhode, the energetic tale leaves no hero unsung and no bad guy unpunished.
The leader of the paper hawkers is the silver-tongued Jack Kelly (the charismatic Marco Tzunux), who has a sure-fire sales pitch, a way with the ladies, terrific artistic ability and a fierce loyalty to the family of fellow orphans who push papers on the street. He also leads the call to revolution like a Frenchman at a barricade.
Jack strategizes for the newsboys’ strike with his new friends Davey (a fine Nicholas Parrot) and Davey’s little brother Les (the firecracker Abram Nelson, who shares the part with Edward Owczarski), the cute little kid sidekick. He also makes the acquaintance of the fiercely independent and ambitious cub reporter Katherine Plumber (a spunky Rachael Zientek) who sees an opportunity to leap from the society page and theater reviews to front page stories if she gets the scoop on the strike.
Tzunux and Zientek are pitch perfect in their parts, bringing gorgeous voices and heart to the standard roles of troubled hero and reluctant heroine. From his first wistful song "Santa Fe" to his rabble rousing anthems like "Seize the Day," Tzunux sells his character’s longing — for a better life, the girl of his dreams and justice in an unjust world. While Zientek fits in easily to the part of plucky helpmate surrounded by a sea of guys, she really shines in her solo number "Watch What Happens," exhibiting verbal and vocal gymnastics alongside the distinctive sound of her manual typewriter. The pair also have a "Disney-approved" level of sexual chemistry.
As the "Newsies" version of Tiny Tim, Jordon Arrasmith also puts a lot of pathos and a brilliant voice into the unfortunately named role of Crutchie, melting our hearts with his solo "Letter from the Refuge" in act two. Hobbling on his crutch, he was too slow to get away from the ultimate bad guy Snyder (Chase Stoeger), who is so evil he locks up and starves orphans, embezzling all those government funds for himself. Played as a cross between the child catcher in "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang" and a Batman villain, he’s a bit over the top even for this narrative. Lee Palmer, as Pulitzer, is a more appropriately sized bad guy.
With a story built of banner headlines written in moral black and white, there is little suspense, but there is an enormous amount of fun watching the David and Goliath story play out through earnest ballads and many extended dance breaks. The diverse cast (made up of both boys and girls of many different ethnicities) includes a few standout dancers with enough training to do breathtaking leaps and pirouettes. And the entire gang taps their way through the truly impressive act two opening number, "King of New York."
When the crowd of newsboys aren’t doing time steps on the stage, they jump up and dance on tables. Those who don’t tap perform percussion with metal spoons in time with the music. It’s an enormous, classic Broadway number, done with apparent ease.
With a rented set that closely mirrors the Broadway collection of metal platforms, staircases and oversized doors, the stage is cleverly arranged and rearranged at breakneck speed to keep the pace of the musical humming along. Costume design by Jason Orlenko is less visually unified. Attempting to bring the message of the show — that kids can accomplish amazing things — into the present, the newsies are dressed in the silhouette of the era, but with colors and clothing pieces that are contemporary.
When seen on their own, the urchins look convincing, but juxtaposed with the beautiful period gowns and suits of the adult cast, the concept doesn’t gel.
The good news for "Newsies" is that there are many moments of the show that are simply sublime, including the reveal of the nefarious Spot Conlon gang and the Vaudeville theater scenes with chanteuse Medda Larkin (Natalie Harris). Go see it and celebrate a moment in our country’s history when right easily triumphed over wrong.