Every once in a while, a musical comes along with subjects so innately human -- an underdog, young love, a band of brothers, a villain -- that it easily becomes a classic.
For those who were children in the 90's, that musical is Disney's "Newsies," a 1992 film starring an adolescent, heroic Christian Bale. The show wasn't "imagineered" in a Disney studio. It was inspired by the book "Children of the City" by David Nasaw and loosely based on New York City's Newsboys Strike of 1899, a youth-fronted campaign that forced newspaper giants Hearst and Pulitzer to better compensate their young "salesmen." The plot of the film is not unlike "Oliver Twist" or other societal commentary art based in the late 19th century: working conditions were appalling, and many children worked to support themselves and their families instead of going to school.
The film was a sleeper hit; it bombed at the box office but gained a cultish following when it moved to home video. In 2011, after decades of audiences clamoring for a stage adaptation, "Newsies The Musical" opened at the Paper Mill Playhouse in New Jersey. It moved to Broadway in 2012 and received eight Tony Award nominations, winning for Best Choreography and Best Original Score. A nationwide tour launched in 2014, starring Dan DeLuca as Jack Kelly (the Rochester stop will be DeLuca's last before he moves on to other opportunities).
Lovers of the film will notice a few basic plot differences in the stage version. For starters, there's a different love interest for Kelly, reporter Katherine Plumber, who replaces both the characters Bryan Denton (played by Bill Pullman in the film) and Sarah Jacobs. Based on the audience reaction Tuesday night, it's a welcome addition to the show -- but it also changes the story arc a bit. The songs (by Alan Menken and Jack Feldman) mostly remain intact, including favorites like "Seize the Day" and "King of New York."
What Disney has done with "Newsies" is what Disney does best: they added a little bit of pixie dust, and the show is magical. From the three-story, industrial revolving staircases and overall set design by Tobin Ost to the eye-catching period costumes by Jess Goldstein and expertly atmospheric lighting design by Jeff Croiter, the aesthetic impresses on its own but provides a solid foundation for the constant action happening onstage.
The choreography (by Christopher Gattelli) and fight direction (by J. Allen Suddeth) alone are worth the ticket price. Dances are tight and awe-inducing, filled with rousing tap numbers, back flips, and newspapers. The fights, at times, looked like a neatly timed, violent dance as the characters moved through the three-story set. The multimedia projections (designed by Sven Ortel and adapted by Daniel Brodie) used throughout the show on drop-down scrims follow an ongoing trend in theatrical sets -- hopefully, it's a trend that's here to stay. The inventiveness of projections in theater only improves each year, and this show was no exception.
The cast of "Newsies" is sizeable; the newsboys numbered more than 20 onstage at once. There's an energy that flows from this cast, and that may have been what contributed to an immediate standing ovation from the audience during the curtain call. In particular, DeLuca is Jack Kelly in the flesh, from every renegade remark to heroic stance. Stephanie Styles (Katherine) plays Kelly's feisty, adorable love interest -- and it's worth mentioning the duo has an onstage chemistry stronger than that of most real life lovers.
Other notable performances include Zachary Sayle (Crutchie), whose rendition of "Letter from the Refuge" proved he has the pipes for any role in the show, Vincent Crocilla (the pint-sized Les Jacobs), who can easily keep up with performers twice his age and Kevin Carolan, who portrayed a "bully" Governor Roosevelt. In all, the entire cast of "Newsies" deserves accolades for delivering one of the strongest, most enjoyable ensemble performances appearing on the Auditorium Theatre stage in a long time.