In 1992, the box-office dud “Newsies” was nominated for five Golden Raspberry Awards – the prize designed to acknowledge failure in American filmmaking – including worst picture.
Twenty years later, the stage version was nominated for eight Tony Awards, winning for Alan Menken and Jack Feldman’s score and Christopher Gattelli’s ceaselessly athletic choreography.
Did revisions, including added and dropped songs, change lead to gold? Did big ensemble numbers work better in person, where they depend on split-second skills, than onscreen, where directors merely do multiple takes to achieve effects?
Were critics and audiences more receptive to the pro-union, anti-boss message of the story during the recent recession, as the economic divide between the wealthy and the middle class continued to widen?
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Hard to say. But the national tour of the show, which came to Belk Theater Tuesday on the PNC Broadway Lights season, has polish and pizzazz – yes, and an emotional punch – I don’t remember from a movie I wrote off soon after I saw it.
The great strength of the show is its energy, supplied mostly by a cast of newsboys who step into the spotlight as soloists from time to time. That energy can occasionally be exhausting: The score consists of anthem after anthem, with few quiet moments in between. (One of the latter, sung by a character in a juvenile jail called The Refuge, was added expressly for the tour.)
But the constant intensity gives us a feeling of what’s at stake for the newsboys. They’ve been told to spend more to buy papers they sell, because publisher Joseph Pulitzer wants to make up losses created by the dwindling circulation of his New York World. When an extra dime of expense means one day less of food, we’re watching a rare life-or-death musical. These kids don’t want to get a girl; they want to get a meal.
There is a girl, of course, protofeminist reporter Katherine (fireball Stephanie Styles). She makes the newsies famous when they go on strike, though Pulitzer (aptly sinister Steve Blanchard) tries to squash the story. With Jack Kelly (charismatic Dan DeLuca) at the head of the march, assisted by articulate Davey (strong-voiced Jacob Kemp), you know the kids can’t fail.
Harvey Fierstein based the book of the show on a real strike in the summer of 1899 that hampered not only the World but other papers. “Newsies” wears its pro-union heart on its ragged sleeve; as a character says, “It’s poor little kids versus rich greedy sourpusses.” Not subtle, but rousing, especially if you see the show as a metaphor for America today. It’s also refreshing to think about a time when “every banker, bum or barber” wanted to keep up with the news – however slanted it may have been – every day.
Choreographer Christopher Gattelli and director Jeff Calhoun put across their message with tremendous zest. Dancers pinwheel, pirouette, tap on tables, high-kick, strut and occasionally shimmy. (That would be beguiling Angela Grovey as vaudevillian Medda, who delivers the irrelevant song “That’s Rich.”)
Care has been taken with details, from the three-tiered set by Tobin Ost to the bruises applied after cops beat protestors. When the newsies tear up Pulitzer’s papers and hurl them at us just before intermission, shreds float into the theater; pick one up, and you see it’s a multipage replica of the New York World from July 20, 1899, down to umbrella ads and plans for a new city hall. That’s craftsmanship.