Paperboys pummeled by penurious press

  • by Richard Dodds
  • Tuesday February 24, 2015
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Dan DeLuca (center) leads a band of newsboys in a strike<br>against powerful publishers in the musical <i>Newsies</i><br> at the Orpheum Theatre. Photo: Deen Van Meer
Dan DeLuca (center) leads a band of newsboys in a strike
against powerful publishers in the musical Newsies
at the Orpheum Theatre. Photo: Deen Van Meer

The sun will come out in one day more when you can consider yourself part of the newsies family. With little dabs of lyrics from Annie, Les Miserables, and Oliver!, antecedents for the musical Newsies are evoked, but don't expect any such potent ear worms from the recent Broadway musical now at the Orpheum Theatre. The songs by Alan Menken and Jack Feldman, with an exception or two, are genially generic, whether they be love ballads or anthemic calls to arms (a song titled "Seize the Day" is heard three times). What you probably will remember is the powerhouse dancing, but even that can lose impact as an army of young dancing men assaults the stage repeatedly in choreography that begins to look very much the same.

Despite these shortcomings, Newsies proved surprisingly popular with Broadway audiences in a two-year run that ended last summer. It is all the more surprising since the source material for the stage musical was the notoriously unsuccessful 1992 Disney movie Newsies " and although I know of no one who is party to the phenomenon, it is said the movie now has a cult following on home video. What's on stage is likely too conventional ever to develop a cult following, but in this, its transitory moment of consequence, Newsies can provide two professionally rendered hours of entertainment suitable for young and old, if not for those with a visceral aversion to labor unions. And even they may be able to go with the flow.

Harvey Fierstein reworked the film's screenplay for the new show, and the glory of collective bargaining is invoked with deese-dems-and-does urchins battling heartless millionaires over mere pennies. The tale is based on an actual 1899 strike by New York newsboys over reduced compensation from publishers Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst, a David versus Goliath tale that the city's other newspapers gleefully chronicled.

Many of the facts have been fudged or conjured by Fierstein, but that's to be expected when the assignment is to create an entertaining musical comedy. But that freedom is not as fully realized as it could be, a notable case being the wan villains. While a cardboard-deep version of Pulitzer as a ruthless businessman is shown (and heard in a terrible money-money-money song), the real dangers to the paperboys' lives are the authority figures trying to send them to a group home run by an evil warden. But these characters float around the peripheries, and make someone like Mr. Bumble from Oliver! seem like a fully fearsome creation.

Fierstein also invents a love interest for Jack Ryan, the newsboys' charismatic leader who is charismatically played by Dan DeLuca. That the girl (an appealing Stephanie Styles) is actually a woman, a newspaper reporter, creates a bit of confusion about just how old our leading-man newsboy is supposed to be. And while it might seem that Tiny Tim strings are being plucked by a crutch-dependent newsboy helpfully nicknamed Crutchie, a real-life Crutchie Morris was part of the 1899 strike. In that role, Zachary Sayle gets one of the score's more heartfelt songs, "Letter from the Refuge," that he delivers while held at a juvenile detention center. The boys find genuine refuge in a music hall run by a buxom entertainer saddled with a weak pastiche of a vaudeville song that finds no extra oomph in Angela Grovey's performance.

The real stars of Newsies are the athletic young performers who dance Christopher Gattelli's aggressive choreography with boundless vigor. Director Jeff Calhoun's staging largely involves organizing the movements of set designer Tobin Ost's towering scaffolds that have a bit of worrisome wobble, at least in their touring incarnation.

But Newsies is mostly the kind of polished affair that you would expect from Disney. Polished, in fact, to the point of an edge-free blandness. But the show has energy to spare when dozens of young feet are hammering the boards. It's just not quite enough to warrant an "Extra, Extra" headline.

 

Newsies will run through March 15 at the Orpheum Theatre. Tickets are $36-$250. Call (888) 746-1799 or go to shnsf.com.