"Where better to escape trouble than the theatre…"
So says Medda Larkin (Aisha de Haas), in "Newsies," Disney Theatrical's latest touring production now making a stop at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts. The show, a dance extravaganza on the scale only Disney can deliver, will not only make you forget your troubles, but will send you off into the night on a buoyant cloud of can-do optimism.
The production, based on the 1992 film of the same name, takes unusual subject matter for a musical fueled by the Disney fairy-tale machine. It follows the true story of a group of news boys, or "Newsies," in 1899 New York and their attempts to form a union and gain fair treatment as workers. The newsies are all boys under the age of 18, and their efforts shine a light on wider abuses in a city-wide system of child labor and juvenile incarceration. It is impossible to ignore the irony of a conglomerate like Disney producing a show that champions the rights of the common man over big business; yet, in spite of this irony and bleak source material, the musical manages to weave in a tale of romance and celebrate the triumph of the underdog.
The book does leave something to be desired – the first half of the Act One drags, weighed down with heavy exposition, and things don't really come to life until the first big showstopper, "The World Will Know." The rapid speed of the romance further exacerbates pacing issues. Musicals notoriously build in love-at-first-sight narratives, but Jack Kelly (Joey Barreiro) barely even looks at Katherine (Morgan Keene) before falling for her. This is resolved in the second act as their relationship faces conflict and more nuanced development.
This aside, the musical still holds its audience in thrall. Its success lies in its catchy show-tunes and flashy choreography. The true mark of a contemporary musical's impact is whether the songs stick with you – do you leave the theater humming a refrain or have they all fallen out of your head by the time the curtain falls? "Newsies" is packed full of memorable tunes that will have you tapping your toes through the drive home.
Disney veteran Alan Menken wrote the music (with lyrics by Jack Feldman), and you can hear the melodic hallmarks of his most famous work, such as "The Little Mermaid" and "Beauty and the Beast," throughout. Love song "Something to Believe In" is at home alongside other Menken romantic duets "A Whole New World" and "I See the Light" from "Tangled." The show is bolstered with rousing anthems like "The World Will Know" and "Seize the Day" that make you sit up in your seat and pay attention (all while a wide smile spreads across your face). While the ballads and solo songs give the cast a chance to shine, the ensemble numbers provide plenty of vocal gymnastics of their own. A modulated note in "Seize the Day" sends shivers down your spine and the audience into spontaneous applause.
The current touring production is strengthened by the presence of its winning lead. As Jack Kelly, Joey Barreiro brings a grittier, cocksure take on the role. Kelly is a boy of the streets, a resourceful young man whose near lifetime of independence has taught him not only how to look out for himself, but how to stand up for the little guy. Though he was raised in Miami, Barreiro brings a distinctly New York City flavor to Jack Kelly that lends an air of authenticity to the entire proceedings. His lived-in performance feels more like a young Jimmy Cagney or Pacino than a squeaky clean musical theatre star. With his crooked smile and winning good looks, Barreiro makes Kelly's ability to talk his way out of trouble and his leadership skills a natural extension of his inherent likeability. Barreiro imbues Kelly with a strong moral compass and self-assured charm, assisted by his impressive vocal chops and dancing skills.
But the true star of this production is its remarkable ensemble who flawlessly execute Christopher Gattelli's inventive choreography. Not since "West Side Story" has a gang of chorus boys so dazzled on the Broadway stage. Gattelli includes plenty of nods to famous choreographer Jerome Robbins, with a host of outstretched arms and mid-air splits that rival those of the Jets and the Sharks. The choreography evokes the rough-and-tumble setting of the New York streets with its emphasis on physical strength and acrobatics, but it blends this sense of organic movement with the precision of the Broadway chorus line.
Executing back flips, hand stands, splits and more, the almost exclusively male ensemble renders gymnastic feats as effortless movements. As a show-stopping tap number, "King of New York" features meticulous footwork with not a toe or outstretched arm out of place. This is punctuated with splits, pirouettes, and other spectacular solo hijinks. The ensemble metaphorically reenacts the unity of the newsboys and their cause, moving as one flawless, stirring entity.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the thrilling newspaper dance that caps Act One in "Seize the Day." As a show of defiance, the boys rip apart newspapers with their feet and proceed to execute a series of complicated dance steps, keeping the pieces of paper underneath their feet throughout. Flipping forward on to their hands, they end by grabbing the pieces of paper, crumpling them, and throwing them into the audience. It's an unforgettable moment and one that highlights the stellar talents and exactitude of the ensemble.
"Newsies" is an exemplary product of Disney theatricals with its Menken score, heartfelt book, and eye-popping series of ensemble numbers. It is a high-energy show in the style of a Golden Age musical, buoyed by the pizazz and spirit of spectacular choreography and an enviably talented ensemble who makes their impossible acrobatics look effortlessly graceful. For the dance numbers alone, the show is one that demands you not only "read all about it," but see it too.
"Newsies" is playing at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts (600 Town Center Drive) through May 29th. Tickets begin at $25. For more information, visit www.scfta.org.