“Newsies” comes with groupies.
You heard them roar approval Tuesday night as soon as the chorus stepped onto the Belk Theater stage. This cadre of devoted fans cheered clinches both romantic and combative, declarations of ideology and love, even movements of the metallic tiers in the three-story set. They burst toward the front of the theater at intermission for souvenirs, picking up scraps of newsprint the rebellious newsboys hurled at the audience.
They hollered with pleasure at the big ensembles, which were executed with flair and near-military unity, and even at single gestures: When Specs (Jordan Samuels) did a running forward somersault, audience members voiced their pleasure. (Perhaps some were Samuels’ former mates at Northwest School of the Arts or N.C. Dance Theatre classes.)
There was a lot to cheer about, even if you saw the Broadway Lights touring version that came here in January 2015. Only Steve Blanchard repeated his role among the leads, playing an even more supercilious version of newspaper publisher Joseph Pulitzer. This version had just a little more edge and energy, maybe a little more exuberance as the remarkable chorus tapped and whirled through Christopher Gattelli’s Tony-winning choreography.
Book writer Harvey Fierstein and lyricist Jack Feldman give us cut-and-dried characters: A plucky strike leader with a dream (charismatic Joey Barriero), a feisty young female reporter proving herself in the man’s world of 1899 (firebrand Morgan Keene), a brainy organizer peddling papers because his old man got injured and can’t get relief (Stephen Michael Langton, giving a quietly effective performance).
Most of the pathos falls to Crutchy – yes, a limping kid with a crutch – and Andy Richardson has a lot of heart in the role. Pulitzer, his cronies and corrupted cops and politicians are serpents who rattle loudly on the other side.
Yet this is an especially effective American story. Pulitzer jacks up the price of papers past what newsies can afford, and they band together to negotiate a better contract. Slum conditions in a rat-infested “refuge” for street kids get exposed. Workers demand what is fair, not special treatment or exorbitant wages, and take their case to a responsive public.
There’s something poignant for a newspaperman in a musical that celebrates not only the value of the press but the interest and compassion of an informed readership. Both sides are sadly diminished today. To hear Pulitzer and his editors sing that the way to prosperity is to “trim a bit here and then trim a bit there” and “cut back personnel” is to wince at the topicality of this story set 117 years ago.