Skylight Music Theatre’s Newsies is a heart-warming show for the holidays.
If Hamilton is the example du jour of a modern Broadway musical, and Oklahoma! is a thing of the past, Newsies is a musical which falls firmly in the middle. How interesting for Milwaukeeans to have all three as entertainment options in the span of a month. Oklahoma! opened Skylight Music Theatre’s 60th anniversary season, the national touring company of Hamilton is due to close its run at the Marcus Center Nov. 17, and as of Saturday, Skylight’s Newsies is now open at the Broadway Theatre Center.
Billed as Skylight’s holiday show, Newsies runs through Dec. 29 in Broadway Theatre Center’s Cabot Theatre.
Considered together, these three shows offer a glimpse of how much musical theater has evolved, but they are perhaps more similar than different. Each considers a specific time and place in American history, sprinkled with spontaneous song and dance, and a whole lot of heart.
Skylight Music Theatre’s version of Newsies is based on a stage adaptation of Disney’s 1992 film which premiered on Broadway in 2012. With a rich score by Alan Menken and Jack Feldman and clever book by Harvey Fierstein, Newsies certainly has heart.
And this home-grown production directed by Door County-based Molly Rohde is, in fact, teeming with local and regional talent both on stage and behind the scenes. With more than 30 performers, including 16 local youths, the Cabot’s stage is filled to the gills, I suppose not unlike the streets of 19th century New York, where the musical takes place.
Newsies is loosely based on a true story about an 1899 youth-led strike. The “newsies,” mostly runaways and children of immigrants, who made their living selling late editions of the newspapers, rallied against the unfair practices of powerful publishers like Joseph Pulitzer.
There’s quite a lot of context written into a musical that, on the surface, seems just like fun. If you’re paying attention, Newsies’ sub-plots touch on everything from class and social mobility, the labor movement and women’s rights to yellow journalism, the power of the press and the changing nature of how we absorb information 120 years later.
But at its core, Newsies is a story about kids coming together to affect change. You can draw any number of parallels to more recent youth initiatives around climate change, gun control or more generally to the fearlessness of youth to stand up to corruption and give voice to the voiceless.
Of course, it’s all Disney-fied. So, there’s a glossy sheen of family-friendly cuteness, and of course, an unrealistic love story and a pithy, happy ending (see also: every other Disney thing).
Leading the strike are the charismatic street kid Jack Kelly (Marco Tzunux) and Davey (Nicholas Parrott), who starts selling papers with his little brother, Les (played Friday by Abram Nelson), when an ongoing trolley strike takes a financial toll on their family. The two couldn’t be more different — both the characters and the actors. Jack is a precocious, rough-and-tumble type with a hidden penchant for painting, while Davey clearly has an educational advantage. Together, with the loveable Crutchie, another runaway with a bum leg wonderfully interpreted by Jordan Arrasmith, they make a great team.
Tzunux benefits vocally from these chums, too. As an ensemble, this group is quite strong, but Tzunux was not the only one who had some difficulty finding the notes on opening night. And his pop-styled flair is mismatched with the more operatic Rachael Zientek, who plays Katherine Plumber, a pert and ambitious reporter, and Jack’s love interest. Some missed sound cues didn’t help any of the soloists, either, but these and other wobbles will likely smooth out as the six-week run continues.
And there is much to admire about Skylight’s high production value, live band (under the baton of music director Christie Chiles Twillie), and quality of acting and dancing in Newsies. In particular, Natalie Harris is terrific as Maddy Larkin, a flashy theater owner who takes Jack under her wing, as are Lee Palmer as the austere, though sometimes ridiculous Joseph Pultizer, and even Christopher Elst in his cameo as then-Governor Teddy Roosevelt.
Elst also managed convincing fight choreography in the newsies’ various scuffles with police. Fantastic moveable set pieces (by Front Row Theatricals) framed by a wall of newspaper clippings are complimented by gritty, sepia lighting from Joseph Arthur Franjoine and newspaper props whose headlines can be read from the back row of the cozy Cabot. Newsies’ costumes are less convincingly period-specific, with some of the ensemble in mix of modern blue jeans or Dockers while others are authentically dressed. Costumer Jason Orlenko’s haute couture stylings for the upper crust characters, like Katherine, Maddy and Pulitzer, however, are perfectly on point.
I have to give mad props to choreographer David Roman for not shying away from long dance breaks and pushing this cast with all sort of leaps, turns and Robbins-esque jazz. Unfortunately, the cast — many of whom are really capable dancers — are on top of each other and unable to dance full out. The tap numbers at the top of act two, on the other hand, make use of the set’s vertical space, with tappers time stepping on tables and chairs accompanied by an adorable spoons band in perfect sync.
I could have watched that part all night — not just because it was the moment when every element of this Newsies jelled. The pure joy radiating from the cast, a group of mostly kids telling a story about kids taking on “the man” and winning — you can’t help but root for them.
Newsies runs through Dec. 29 at the Broadway Theatre Center in Milwaukee’s Historic Third Ward. For tickets and more information, visit the Skylight Theatre’s website.
Skylight Theatre’s production of Newsies
Newsies runs through Dec. 29
Broadway Theatre Center (158 N Broadway)