As someone who saw the oh-so-lackluster 1992 film Disney made back when It first came out, to say that I didn’t have high expectations for Newsies is a massive understatement. And just like Joseph Pulitzer when he underestimated the Newsies during their strike in 1899, boy was I wrong.
This stage version won two Tonys in 2012, and it is a head-and-shoulders tighter, more exciting, better and more inspirational show than the film in every way. Don’t let a bad experience with the film (despite the really good performance by Christian Bale as Jack Kelly) dissuade you from seeing the current stage version at The Paramount, it’s splendid, keeping everything good from the original and dumping the rest in favor of a streamlined plot laser-focused on the boys and their fight for fair treatment from their employer. The show is now good, and this production at the Paramount is top-notch, entertaining and political. It is well worth seeing. You should go.
Jim Corti has again selected a very timely and socially-conscious piece to open the new Broadway Series season, and it is easy to see the parallels of the Newsies’ plight in our current age of “Fight for $15,” cutting of healthcare for workers by national chains and General Motors, and people dropping dead on shift at the Amazon warehouse. And this show neither pulls punches in its depiction of starving child laborers at the turn of the 20th Century, nor the answer to their plight. As Jack reminds us, all the little guys banding together is the one way to make the plutocrats pay attention. This show is shamelessly political and everything about the production leans into it. Theatre should be relevant and timely and the Paramount’s Newsies certainly is that.
As Corti says in the front of the program, “Today’s breaking news, headlining a CEO billionaire’s exploitation of his employees, isn’t a far cry from the defiant newsies, homeless and orphaned children of immigrants facing off with newspaper barons Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst.” You can see this in every aspect of his superb direction. He has his eyes on the prize and keeps the musical’s message in the forefront, which makes it all the stronger.
As usual, the Paramount has done a fine job with the sets and projections, creating Turn of the Century New York in the days when newspapers controlled the popular conversation and could king-make, just like television today. The dominating façade of Pulitzer’s New York World looms over the entire production, never letting us forget just who the fattest fat cat is. Joseph Pulitzer up in his ivory tower.
Meanwhile, the children who act as his distribution arm are, for the most part, homeless. The Newsies leader, Jack Kelly (masterfully played by Alex Prakken, his charisma is so strong you can see why these boys would follow him), longs to move West and get away from New York’s squalor. He lives on a rooftop, so he has some small hope of seeing the sky. While the projections do a great job making this situation seem magical during the show, you can’t help but think what living on a rooftop because you are homeless might mean in the dead of winter. These boys are so poor they can’t even afford a roof.
Jack and his best friend “Crutchie” (Michael Kurowski is angelic in this Tiny Tim-like role, except for the part where you can see that he’s actually one of the most responsible and grown-up of the Newsies) arrive to receive their papers from the New York World’s thug-like distributors just in time to get their breakfast, from nuns, who bring a cart with tea and bread for the starving homeless children every day. The headline is not one that will sell a lot of papers, about the Unionized Trolley workers striking for the third week in a row. The boys are disappointed.
Jack attempts to flirt with a pretty girl on the street, she puts him down amusingly. The Newsboys get their papers, and sing and we meet Davey (the very strong, Koray Tarhan) and his little brother Les (Daniel Font-Wilets -who I saw and is adorable or Nathaniel Buescher) new additions to the Newsboy crew because their father has been laid off and has no income because he doesn’t belong to a Union. Jack prevents them from being cheated by the distributors and then takes them under his wing in a 60/40 split to teach them the ropes. He sees potential in Les, because little starving kids can sell a lot of papers to soft-hearted ladies.
Cut to Pulitzer’s office. Since the Spanish-American War is no longer raging, paper circulation is down. Pulitzer wants his profits to keep going up, so he decides to squeeze the money out of the poorest and weakest members of his own company, the Newsies. Each kid was responsible for paying 50 cents per 100 papers previously. He raises that to 60 cents. As one of the boys says when the 10 cent cost-hike is announced, “I can eat on that for two days!” (A loaf of bread was only about 5 cents in those days.)
Taking a page from the headlines, the Newsies decide to follow the Trolley Workers and strike. The typical hijinks ensue with the police and thugs called to beat up the little kids and break the strike. Cue the intervention of the pretty girl Katharine Plumber (ably played and sung by newcomer Justine Cameron—she is making her professional debut in this production and is so good I’m expecting big things from her in the future) who happens to be a newspaper reporter currently covering entertainment, but who wants to move to hard news something which is forbidden to female reporters. After an absolutely showstopping rendition of “Watch What Happens” by Cameron, Katherine writes about the Newsies’ strike and makes front page of the New York Sun, and the rest of the show is about the Newsies seizing the means of production, using the power of unions and the press to win concessions from the owners. It all ends happily with a romance between Jack and Katherine and triumph for the Newsies over the evil forces of capitalism.
Final shout outs to some of the rest of the excellent cast. Jerica Exum is flawless in the rather thankless role of Medda. While she provides a sanctuary for Newsies on the lam, the part has little to do with the main plot and so seems a bit out of place. But she does get the fabulous showstopper “That’s Rich” and makes the most of it with great humor and charm. Bret Tuomi did an excellent job as Pulitzer, and you need a strong Pulitzer to anchor this, but he was so perfectly despicable that nobody cheered or clapped loudly for him when he came out to bow. He deserved cheers and applause.
This show is a highly, highly fictionalized account of what actually happened. But it does contain some of the same essential elements, other than the ages of the participants and the entire lack of newsgirls. There were many, many female Newsies in reality, one Darby Caffrey was arrested along with real-life Brooklyn leader Ed “Racetrack” Higgins and there isn’t a single one in this cast, though other casts around the country have begun including them.
Of note in this production is the excellent dancing, led by Christopher John Kelly (Specs) as dance captain. The Newsies show off several styles including at one point doing tap and using it as the class marker it actually was. Tap in America was largely a fusion of Irish dance and African dance traditions, taught to each other by observation and innovation among the very poorest in American society. It came to Broadway after touring the country in traveling minstrel shows. And here the Newsies use it to show their defiance of the plutocrats. Again, those scarred by the tedious 1992 film, forget all that. This production is fantastic and the dancing moves the plot instead of dragging it down.
You can (and should) get your tickets at the Paramount Theatre Box Office.
Newsies Runs through October 20th.
In addition to the fine production, the Paramount is introducing a new Broadway Panel Series inviting the public to discuss Newsies at Newsies: The Heart Behind the Headlines on Saturday, September 28, from 5:30 pm. to 6:30 p.m., in the new JoAnne McKee Studio Theatre, Paramount School of the Arts, 20 S. Stolp Ave., in downtown Aurora. Audience members, Paramount artists and guest panelists will delve deeper into the history, themes and continued resonance of Newsies.
Paramount’s Newsies panel includes Jim Corti, Paramount Theatre Artistic Director and director of Newsies; Francesca Morgan, a history professor at Northeastern Illinois University and expert on streetcorner newsboys in American cities and other forms of child labor; and Susan Campbell Bartoletti, author of Kids on Strike, a book about the newsboy strike of 1899.
Paramount’s Broadway Panel Series events are free, but reservations are recommended as space is limited. RSVP to [email protected] or call (630) 896-6810.
The new Broadway Panel Series is programmed by Andrea Pikscher, Education and Community Engagement Coordinator, Paramount Theatre. For more information on Paramount’s education and community programming, including the full slate of performing arts classes now on offer for newborns to adults at the new Paramount School of the Arts, visit ParamountSchool.com or call (630) 896-6810.
Photos by Liz Lauren and Thomas J. King.