Disney’s Newsies seizes its musical day

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The Broadway touring company of Disney’s Newsies, a flop movie musical that found new life on stage, lands at the Orpheum Theatre as part of the SHN season. Below: Dan DeLuca (center) is Jack Kelly, the leading newsboy with dreams of Santa Fe in Newsies. ©Disney. Photos by Deen Van Meer

Newsies that unlikely Broadway hit that started out as a flop movie musical, isn’t so much about groundbreaking theater as it is a sterling example of how efficient Disney can be at creating solid, broadly appealing entertainment.

The Broadway production closed last fall, but the tour dances on. If ever there was a show meant for the road, it’s Newsies, a high-energy, stick-it-to-the-man ode to unions of all kind (labor, romantic, brotherly). Now at the Orpheum Theatre as part of the SHN season, Newsies is the definition of crowd pleaser.

You can feel the machinery working here as Harvey Fierstein amps up and fills out the bare-bones movie screenplay about New York news boys who rebelled against money-grubbing Joseph Pulitzer in 1899. He dutifully provides a strong, intelligent young woman (absent from the movie), raises the dramatic stakes for the leading characters and does his best to make the boys themselves more than their identifying features (Crutchie has a crutch, Spot has a big arm mole, Specs wears…well, you get it). Composer Alan Menken and lyricist Jack Feldman tinker with the movie songs (which are quite good) and a few more, the best of which is the lively “Watch What Happens.”

Director Jeff Calhoun adopts a strategy of speed and motion to keep Newsies leaping through its 2 1/2 hours. There’s hardly a dull moment (except maybe for Pulitzer getting a shave), and much of the show’s entertainment value comes down to the choreography by Christopher Gattelli. These aren’t really news boys, after all. They’re Broadway dancers, and boy oh boy (oh, boys!) do they get to demonstrate their talent. From the gymnastics of “Carrying the Banner” and “Seize the Day” to the tap of “King of New York,” these young men are fountains of twirling testosterone. Acrobatic, graceful and aggressive, these dancers are the show’s motor, and though the plot of the little guys against the big bazillionaire bully has its moments, it’s the sheer joy that comes through the dancing that makes Newsies memorable.

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Dan DeLuca makes for a charismatic leading man as Jack Kelly, the de facto unionizer of the Newsies, and what’s a downtrodden hero without a pipe dream? For Jack, that translates to dreams of life out West in Santa Fe. DeLuca has a strong voice tinged with modern pop stylings. He and Stephanie Styles have a nice chemistry, which helps tone down the schmaltz in their duet, “Something to Believe I,” one of those love songs where they actually have to stop singing so they can kiss. Twice. Styles’ best moment is “Watch What Happens,” which, in addition to being an ode to journalism (yay, newspapers!), captures youthful, if naive, enthusiasm: “Their mistake is they got old. That is not a mistake we’ll be making. No sir, we’ll stay young forever.”

Youth itself is practically a character on this stage. “Newsies” revels in the idealism and, especially, the energy of youth. That’s why the anthems – “Seize the Day,” “Once and For All” – have such power. It’s like Les Miz lite with less flag waving and more dancing on newsprint.

The only really disappointing thing about Newsies is its ending. After all those stirring anthems, the strike is resolved and their are reprises of “Seize the Day” and “King of New York.” No powerful ballad or chorale to capture the moment or perhaps consider the future. Of course the finale/curtain call is overloaded with more hyperkinetic dancing, which is fun, of course, but by this time in the evening, we’re craving something more than melodrama, leaps and a relentlessly cheerful ensemble.

It’s all slick and efficient and impeccably performed – entertaining to be sure, but sometimes big, bold headlines aren’t enough.

[bonus interview]
I interviewed composer Alan Menken and cast member (and Bay Area native) Julian DeGuzman for a feature in the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the story here.

Newsies continues through March 15 at the Orpheum Theatre, 1192 Market St., San Francisco. Tickets are $45-$250. Call 888-746-1799 or visit www.shnsf.com.