'Newsies' strong and uplifting at the Muny
Newsies began as a 1992 Disney movie starring Christian Bale. The musical about newsboys taking on publishing giant Joseph Pulitzer featured muscled teenage boys dancing a-la-West Side Story. It didn't do well in the box office but slowly became a cult hit -- a well-deserved distinction. Eventually, fans called for a Broadway remake, and Harvey Fierstein (fire-steen), Alan Menken, and Jack Feldmen obliged. In 2012, Newsies: The Musical opened and, that year, won Tonys for choreography and best musical score.
In the opening scene, a beautiful bromance between the two male leads is revealed from the top of a building in New York City around the turn of the last century. Jack Kelly and his disabled best friend Crutchie dream of escaping the stinking city streets for a better life in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where the air is fresh and, they surmise, you are paid fairly for a day's work. There, Jack says, Crutchie won't need to be able to run: he can ride horses all day.
The boys and their friends sell newspapers for The World, an international newspaper published by Joseph Pulitzer. Pulitzer decides to raise the price the newsboys pay for their papers, and the boys go on strike. It's a familiar tale of giants squashing the little guy, but this time features romance, song and dance.
During the opening scene of the Muny's current adaptation, the audience falls for Jay Armstrong Johnson as Kelly and Daniel Quadrino as Crutchie immediately. After this scene, the show stalls, with the cast seemingly saving their energy for later numbers. But by the mid-point of Act I during the call-to-action anthem "The World Will Know," the cast wakes up, and from that point on, they lock into the show. Tessa Grady is quirky and sharp as Jack Kelly's love interest. Her voice is perfectly suited to the role, and she nails her solo "Watch What Happens," although the music itself isn't very memorable. Ta'Rea Campbell as Miss Medda is beautiful on stage, and her maternal warmth can be felt from the back of the enormous house. Davis Gaines is comically evil as Joseph Pulitzer, and Spencer Davis Milford and Gabriel Cytron play the brothers Davey and Les with believable affection.
The leads' and ensemble's vocals are absolutely stunning in every song. The Muny band, which is on point, as always, delivers Menken's iconic music into the audience's hearts with a jolt. The lighting, costume and video designs seamlessly work together to enhance the production, but the choreography can be sluggish. Director and choreographer Chris Bailey probably attempted to create dances that would wow the audience but still be easy for the cast to learn in a short rehearsal period. This method works in some numbers, but in others, the cast does their best to fill tired movements with joie de vivre while the music calls for more than they deliver.
The most touching scene of the night is Daniel Quadrino's "Letter From the Refuge." With his gorgeous voice, Quadrino is funny, pitiful, confident, and broken all at once during this brief scene. It is a remarkable moment.
Bailey and his cast and crew tackled a monumental task with staging a show like Newsies in an extremely short rehearsal time. They succeeded in creating a strong, uplifting version of the musical that leaves audiences feeling like a good guy can win sometimes. Newsies plays at the Muny now through August 13.