A revamped, richer 'Newsies' at PlayHouse Square

Photo by Deen van Meer

Photo by Deen van Meer

As any journalist knows, a few tweaks to a story can mean the difference between an ordinary article and a truly memorable one. The same holds true for a playwright and that's proven by Harvey Fierstein revision of the 1992 Disney film "Newsies," which critics derided and fared miserably at the box office.

Enter writer/actor Fierstein.

He's helped inject new life into the true Dickensian story about poor children selling newspapers on New York City's streets in 1899 after they're forced to pay more for their papers.

Actually, despite the film version's failure at the box office and among critics, it created a cult following among youngsters, with oodles of "Newsies" lovers dubbed "Fansies."They're likely to be just as inspired and moved by the award-winning Broadway musical stage version -- a U.S. tour, directed sensitively and energetically by Jeff Calhoun, which is docked at PlayhouseSquare's Connor Palace Theatre through Sunday.

The show has undergone changes for the better, although the character Medda Larkin (a vigorous Angela Grovey), who appeared in the film and runs a vaudeville theater, adds little to the show. In the stage version, the enthusiastic female reporter who writes about the Newsies has a stronger objective than the bland male reporter in the film.

Katherine, (a determined, charismatic and charming Stephanie Styles) like the Newsies, is an underdog; she's a female and, according to the views of some living in the era, should be relegated to writing for the society pages or covering ballet. But this is the turn of the century, she exclaims, things are changing and she's not about to let her gender keep her from her dream. She has a goal and covering the Newsies' strike could prove her key to achieving journalistic stardom.But she faces an obstacle which could prove her downfall. Katherine also serves as a love interest to strike leader Jack Kelly. In the film, he faced a conflict of remaining a Newsie and part of their "family," or moving out west, as he so often dreams of doing. This conflict is heightened with Katherine as a love interest, as she has become part of the Newsies family.

That clan includes Les, a pint-sized paper seller who takes on the job with his brother, Davey, to feed their family; their father can no longer work after he was injured on the job. In the film, Les doesn't have nearly as large a role as in the stage musical. In the latter, he's front and center, which is a good thing; he epitomizes the small but indefetigable youngster whom the rock-hearted Joseph Pulitzer wouldn't hesitate to take advantage of.

The choreography (credit Christopher Gattelli) is much more focused. The Newsies' vivacious, physical, often joyous dances include a defiant one. During it, they stand on newspapers and tear them apart, symbolizing their protest against the product the behemoth publisher relies on for their livelihood. Sound elements, including a drumbeat simulating marching, evoke the sound of war; these Newsies are in battle, a David Vs. Goliath matchup with odds heavily stacked against the underdogs.

Tobin Ost's scenic design includes a multi-towered, mobile set which is flexible enough to be moved so the actors can engage in their physical dances. The set also allows characters to be highlighted by placing them on the top level, which can symbolize their triumphant rise to the top. Projections of newspapers and New York City add a journalistic and Big Apple flavor to the production. Pictures of the harsh, unforgiving city contrast nicely with the serene landscapes of Santa Fe. The song "Santa Fe," while it doesn't detract from the main plot, doesn't belong at the show's beginning. The following energetic song, "Carrying the Banner," which relates the Newsies' enthusiasm about their job, would better set the scene. Alan Menken (who also composed music for shows such as "Beauty and the Beast") has kept the irresistible, mood-enhancing music in the stage adaptation. There's the celebratory, show-stopping "King of New York," the forceful, attention-grabbing "The World Will Know," "Seize the Day," which carries an air of strong purpose, the dreamy "Santa Fe" and some new songs which, along with Jack Feldman's lyrics, define character and set mood. The actors wrap their robust voices around these musical gems and are convincing in their portrayals.

Dan DeLuca has a street-smart, wise-guy persona and charisma befitting a leader as Jack Kelly, while also exuding a dreaminess while singing "Santa Fe." There's not one false emotion, word, or facial expression in Jacob Kemp's Davey. His facial expressions and voice radiate truth and strong, believeable feelings as Les' older brother. The little guy, played by Anthony Rosenthal during the reviewed performance, has a tenacity that belies his small stature and a fearlessness to speak out. There's also a hint of cuteness and innocent mischeviousness that endears us to him. Zachary Sayle's Crutchie seems a little too robust for a cripple, but, locked up and beaten up in a reformatory run by a corrupt warden, affectingly ends a letter by saying "your friend, your best friend, your brother, Crutchie" to his fellow Newsies. These characters and others are up against Pulitzer (an arrogant and spiteful Steve Blanchard).

The unlikely story of "Newsies" rise from unpopular film to award-winning Broadway musical mirrrors the underdog tale of the Newsies. Both tales should inspire anyone trying to accomplish something, no matter how out of reach it appears.


IF YOU GO:

WHAT: Newsies

WHEN: Thursday through Sunday

WHERE: PlayhouseSquare, 1501 Euclid Ave., Cleveland, OH.

HOW MUCH: Prices vary and tickets are limited.
216-771-4444
www.newsiesthemusical.com