by Judith Newmark, St. Louis Post Dispatch
As soon as the Disney movie “Newsies” was released, St. Louis musical theater fans knew that show belonged on the Muny stage.
Maybe it took Broadway success and 25 years for it to happen — but we were absolutely right all along.
Among highlights of the Muny’s excellent 99th season: It drew the biggest audience in 12 years (91,000) to a beautiful production of “The Little Mermaid” and included an unforgettable performance by Jeffrey Schecter, who stepped in at the last minute to star in “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.”
But the final production of the season, Disney’s “Newsies,” feels like the show of the summer. It boasts fabulous musical numbers and a terrific story for children and adults alike. Plus, it’s never been at the Muny before.
It was worth waiting for.
Based on a real event, the New York newsboys strike of 1899, the story centers on slum kids who stand up to newspaper tycoon Joseph Pulitzer. When Pulitzer, determined to increase his profits, abruptly raises the price that the “newsies” have to pay for a stack of papers to sell, the kids take inspiration from the burgeoning labor movement and strike.
The boys find a natural leader in Jack Kelly, played by triple-threat Jay Armstrong Johnson. Handsome, charismatic and a talented cartoonist, Jack dreams of heading out West. He reveals his hopes in an opening number full of longing (“Santa Fe”).
Johnson sings it eloquently from his “penthouse,” a tenement roof that serves many purposes on Michael Schweikardt’s evocative set, thoughtfully lit by John Lasiter.
The big LED screen in back enhances these effects, thanks to video designer Greg Emetaz. He often displays huge columns of newsprint on “pages” that seem to be turned by an invisible reader. One image, shown only for a moment, jumps out: It looks like an actual photo of long-ago newsies. They look even younger than most of the juveniles onstage.
These kids perform director-choreographer Chris Bailey’s athletic dances with urgency and style. Tessa Grady shines as a young reporter, Katherine, with the looks of a Disney princess and spirit of Jo March.
Naturally, she and Jack fall for each other. But my favorite Katherine moment is Grady’s delightful delivery of “Watch What Happens” — perhaps the only song ever about the challenge of writing on deadline.
Other standouts include Spencer Davis Milford as Jack’s smart pal Davey, Gabriel Cytron as Davey’s adorable little brother Les, and Daniel Quadrino as Jack’s buddy Crutchie, a newsboy with a disability.
Davis Gaines makes an icy Pulitzer, all authority and no heart, while Ta’Rea Campbell shines as a warm-hearted theater owner who entertains in glamorous Gay ’90s style (“That’s Rich”).
The stage musical improves the movie’s plot in several respects, thanks to playwright Harvey Fierstein. But the heart of “Newsies” lies in the big numbers that composer Alan Menken and lyricist Jack Feldman first created for the screen.
In “Carrying the Banner,” “The World Will Know” and “Seize the Day,” Bailey and the orchestra, under music director Michael Horsley, seem to infuse the ensemble with their own energy. The dancers might as well be breathing the music, so completely does it enliven their every gesture.
The newsies, by most measures, are kids who have nothing. But in these dances, we see that they have what everybody needs most: themselves and one another.