- Larry Aydlette Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
Stagnant wages. Rapacious business practices. A widening abyss between the haves and have-nots.
Ripped from the headlines of 2017? Try 1899.
With a sprinkling of Disney magic, the squalor of living and working conditions in turn-of-the-century Manhattan is transformed into a rousing evening of song, dance, romance and social protest in “Newsies The Musical,” now getting its South Florida regional premiere at the Maltz Jupiter Theatre.
Such disparate elements don’t always work together, but this family-friendly and crowd-pleasing show manages to pull off a neat balancing act. It makes you occasionally ponder issues of injustice that still have resonance today, while enjoying the surface pleasures of its uptempo songs and functional story.
If this isn’t a great Broadway musical, it’s a solid, second-tier one, and what is absolutely first-rate is the overall production values that the Maltz has brought to this show. It’s a visual delight from start to finish, and it is anchored by a charismatic lead performance from Broadway pro and ‘American Idol’ contestant John Arthur Greene.
“Newsies” is the musical Cliff’s Notes version of an old-fashioned muckraking expose. On the Dickensian streets of New York City, desperately poor orphans called “newsies” hawk papers, barely making enough to subsist in slums. Meanwhile, greedy publishing barons named Pulitzer and Hearst dress like dandies, work in ornate offices and rake in tidy profits. When those profits are endangered, they raise the upfront cost newsies must pay to sell their “papes,” prompting the kids to unionize and launch a citywide strike.
Greene, taking a break from Broadway’s “School of Rock,” plays newsie leader Jack Kelly, who is all Noo Yawk streetwise on the outside while privately dreaming of an artist’s life in New Mexico. (This is a Disney musical, folks.) With his appealing physicality and supple singing voice, Greene is captivating every moment he’s on stage. His first act closing song, “Santa Fe,” delivered from a tenement rooftop, is the show’s emotional highlight, and he makes you feel his character’s yearning and determination to break free.
Kelly’s love interest Katherine, a feminist reporter out to shatter prevailing prejudices, is played by Clara Cox with an engaging, moxie spirit recognizable from Barbara Stanwyck and Jean Arthur movies. Her singing, especially the verbiage-heavy “Watch What Happens,” seemed a bit underprojected at times, though. This was a spotty problem for other performers throughout the evening, especially on ensemble numbers where the words got muffled. The show’s score by Alan Menken and Jack Feldman depends on absolute clarity in its lyrical message.
Tanesha Gary, as burlesque hall singer Medda Larkin, had no difficulties on her showstopper “That’s Rich.” She has an immediate, electric presence and wears the night’s standout costume, a dazzling orange dress and matching headpiece. And as the baddie Pulitzer (who is no prize), Joseph Dellger steals scenes with an elegant comic flair.
The “Newsies” ensemble is an urchin parade of adorable toughs with varying degrees of savvy and swagger. Adante Carter makes an impression as Davey, an awkward, loose-limbed kid who slowly reveals his intelligence, as does Tyler Jones as disabled newsboy Crutchie and Anthony Michael Zas as smooth-talking Romeo. (Also welcome is the addition of two female newsies, danced with elan by Lindsay Bell and Betty Weinberger.)
Director Marcos Santana and choreographer Al Blackstone deserve credit for the show’s acrobatic energy and inventive staging. They give every performer a moment or two to shine, especially in the tap-dance crazy “King of New York.”
Perhaps the most compelling reason to see “Newsies” is hiding right in plain sight. It’s the stunning scenic design by Adam Koch, aided considerably by costumer Joseph D. Sibley and lighting designer Cory Pattak.
The stage is adorned by screens resembling torn sheets of newsprint, on which are projected sepia-toned images of impoverished Manhattan scenes and, in one clever sequence, the words pouring out of a typewriter. The main set is a multi-level, horizontal web of fire escapes, walkways and tenement roofs that gives a sense of a city’s expanse, and also its crushing claustrophobia. Large-scale banners and burlesque hall backdrops add to the verisimilitude.
Overall, “Newsies” makes for a fun, escapist evening of songs and social realism, but don’t be surprised if you come away thinking the real star is that set. It’s a work of art that you don’t want to miss.