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Wednesday, June 19, 2024

Theatre review: Newsies dances circles around its history lesson

If the title didn’t have the Disney name tacked onto the front of it, one could be forgiven in thinking that Newsies doesn’t come to us from the company that Walt built.

Not to say of course that it isn’t mostly wholesome family fun, but this musical’s major themes, and the true life story on which it is based, makes it as worthwhile seeing as this cast’s athletic dancing.

What my theatre partner described last night as an all-male version of Annie, Newsies is a similar story of young New York orphans overcoming huge obstacles. This time however, it is a whole city filled with underage workers who are rescued from meagre wages and poor working conditions, rather than a single red head.

As the eventual newspaper (or ‘papes’ in the newsie vernacular) headline reads, this is a David and Goliath story. Barely eking out a living selling newspapers, when publishing baron Joseph Pulitzer decides to raise the wholesale price, the boys (and at least one girl on opening night) take action.

Based on the real-life newsboys’ strike of 1899, the newsboys create their own union to force Pulitzer to roll back the price.  Their quest has far bigger implications though, as the musical casts a wider net on the real-world problem of the time: the exploitation of child workers. That it also addresses the changing role of women in a male-dominated world at the turn of the century, is a bonus. While Disney doesn’t necessarily shy away from tough topics in some of its other musical offerings, in Newsies it just feels more real. Sure there is dancing, singing, humour and the necessary love story, but it feels less watered down.

Alongside its history lesson, where Newsies really shines is with Christopher Gattelli’s choreography, and the massive moveable set and projections designed by Tobin Ost and Sven Ortel.

After watching these young actors leaping, jumping and dancing across the stage, it is no wonder Gattelli walked away with a Tony Award in 2012. ©Disney. Photo by Deen van Meer.
After watching these young actors leaping, jumping and dancing across the stage, it is no wonder Christopher Gattelli walked away with a Tony Award in 2012. © Disney. Photo by Deen van Meer.

After watching these young actors leaping, jumping and dancing across the stage, it is no wonder Gattelli walked away with a Tony Award in 2012.  And even while Gattelli’s Tony was won on the backs of its original Broadway cast, this touring production’s young dancers are up to the challenge.

At times more acrobatic than traditional dance, there are still wonderful moments of ballet, tap and ensemble showstoppers that are so filled with vitality that you’ll be exhausted just watching them. Despite the workout, you’ll be hard pressed to find a single young actor on stage breaking a sweat, or out of breath.

In our recent interview with stage manager Jeff Norman he let us in on a number of the secrets behind the show’s set design, and it is indeed impressive.

From the massive 29 foot, seven plus ton pieces that effortlessly glide across stage, to the sprung floor that helps the cast with their gymnastic-style manoeuvers, this is one of the few traveling shows in recent memory to give the full-on Broadway experience. While the design may have been scaled back to fit in the smallest of the venues this particular tour plays, it is virtually the same as what was used during the sit down production in New York.  Coupled with Ortel’s varied projections, it is a marvel.

Dancing and technical aspects aside, there are also some nice performances from this likable cast. Joey Barreiro is endearing as Jack Kelly, the de facto newsboy leader who dreams of a better life, but it is David Michael Langton as his unwilling union brother who becomes the real heart of this show; even the sympathetic Crutchie, played by Andy Richardson, gets overshadowed by Langton. Turner Birthsiel is the very definition of precocious as the pint-sized Les who grows on you, and Steve Blanchard nails the blowhard Joseph Pulitzer.

As Jack’s love interest, Katherine, Morgan Keene has a lovely voice, but her sarcastic delivery in the first half was at times grating. No doubt one of the showstoppers should come from theatre owner Medda Larkin’s “That’s Rich”, but on opening night Aisha de Haan was a little underwhelming.

While audiences will appreciate the history lesson of Newsies, it is the dancing and technical marvels that keep it engaging. But like any good story about newspapers, isn’t it really about the headline? Extra! Extra! Newsies dances circles around its history lesson.

Disney’s Newsies with music by Alan Menken, lyrics by Jack Feldman and book by Harvey Fierstein. Directed by Thomas Schumacher. A Disney Theatrical Productions presentation. On stage at Vancouver’s Queen Elizabeth Theatre until July 10. Visit for tickets and information.

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