Newsies is Annie with boys. And not young boys either, at least not the cast of the touring production currently tapping, back-flipping and flexed-foot kicking across the stage at the Winspear Opera House. These aren't moppets or teenagers. This is a bunch of cute but short-statured young men pretending to be way younger than they are. (One of the leads has a bald spot, which he tries to keep covered with his newsboy cap.)
They're supposed to be orphans around the age of the tykes in Oliver! But this passel of 1899 parentless boys live in squalor and earn pennies a day, not picking pockets in the streets of old London, but hawking newspapers for a penny a pop in New York City's five boroughs. Exhausting work indeed. Despite meager diets and exposure to the elements, these lads still have enough gumption to dance and sing enthusiastically of seizing the day, carrying the banner and having something to believe in, once and for all. (Those clichés are all song titles in this show. Lyricist Jack Feldman, writing words for Alan Menken's relentlessly perky soundalike tunes, works a cliché-ridden anthem like a dog with a bone.)
Yes, it's a hard-knock life being an urchin. But Newsies, an unexpected hit on Broadway three years ago, made its investors rich, grossing $100 million before the national tour even started. Based on a 1992 Disney movie flop, Newsies was created by sending the film's plotlines through the Disney musical Nutribullet to extract what was needed to whip together with seven new songs and a book by Harvey Fierstein (though you'd never guess it from the humorless dialogue full of tired maxims like "keep your eyes on the stars and your feet on the ground").
It ran for two and a half years on Broadway and won two Tonys, including one for the score. There is one good song in the show: "Kings of New York," the second act opener that has the boys tapping and leaping all over the three-story scenery of stacked metal cages.
The dancing is what's great about Newsies. Choreography by Christopher Gattelli is built around the gymnastic abilities of the large cast of male dancers, with enough classical touches to give it impressive grace. Broadway hoofers also must be tumblers these days and Newsies flings its guys aloft, spinning like pinwheels and scissor-kicking so fast their legs blur in mid-air. Some numbers end with more fouettés than a solo in Swan Lake.
The story is Disney-esque in every way, with nearly every scene full of the rousing, fist-pumping faux defiance of many other musicals about orphans, runaways and ragamuffins. The lead rouser is Jack Kelly (Dan DeLuca, great dancer, OK singer), senior newsboy employed by the newspaper owned by publishing giant Joseph Pulitzer (Steve Blanchard). When Pulitzer conspires with fellow titan William Randolph Hearst to squeeze more profits by cutting the newsboys' earnings per stack of "papes," as they call them, endlessly, in the show, Jack rallies the other boys into forming a union and going on strike until the publishers meet their demands.
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Wow. A big American musical that glorifies not just newspapers (remember those?) but a labor union of employees who organize because they believe they deserve better wages and benefits. And they win! Imagine that. And from union-averse Disney, no less.
Jack's love interest is plucky cub reporter Katherine (the annoyingly Chenoweth-y Stephanie Styles), who is really an heiress slumming it at her dad's paper. Borrowing from Titanic, Katherine, a budding Nellie Bly, helps Jack realize his dream of becoming an artist, while siding with the striking newsboys against her powerful father. Borrowing from Nicholas Nickleby, Jack and Katherine also help rescue "Crutchie" (Zachary Sayle), the only non-fouetté-able guttersnipe.
Newsies was inspired by a real-life 19th century newsboy strike, a two-week action against New York City's major newspaper publishers, who depended on street sales to keep circulation high. "Circulation" is the old-timey way they measured newspaper readership. That's given way to "clicks" showing how many people read stories online. Listicles: The Musical just doesn't have the same ring to it.
Newsies plays through May 10 at the Winspear Opera House. Tickets start at $30 through www.attpac.org, by phone at 214-880-0202.