Disney’s high-octane Newsies of New York have pirouetted their way to Pennsylvania Avenue in the Washington, DC, premiere engagement of the Tony Award-winning smash hit musical Disney’s NEWSIES. With incredible choreography by Christopher Gattelli—who won a Tony Award for his work in NEWSIES—the all-star cast twirled and tapped their way in the heart of the nation’s capital into the heart of everyone’s inner child.
Inspired by the newsboy strike of 1899, NEWSIES is set in Manhattan at the turn of the century and tells the story of Jack Kelly (Dan DeLuca), a ragamuffin newsboy who leads his fellow newsboys—or “Newsies”—in a David-meets-Goliath-esque battle against publishing giants Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst. The strike starts when Pulitzer and Hearst raise paper distribution prices at the newsboys’ expense—leading them to organize and protest the rising price of the “papes.”
Rallying his fellow Newsies from each borough as he fights for what he knows is right, Jack is joined by his spirited right-hand man Crutchie (Zachary Sayle), the flirtatious news reporter Katherine (Stephanie Styles) covering the strike in hopes of escaping the monotony of the social pages, and the newcomer Davey (Jacob Kemp). As Jack dreams of a life away from the hardships of city life and his paradise out west, he leads his fellow Newsies in standing up for their rights against the publishing behemoths.
Rounding out the cast are Mark Aldrich, Josh Assor, Evan Autio, Bill Bateman, Josh Burrage, Kevin Carolan, Benjamin Cook, DeMarius Copes, Vincent Crocilla, Julian DeGuzman, Nico DeJesus, Sky Flaherty, Michael Gorman, Jon Hacker, Melissa Steadman Hart, Jeff Heimbrock, Stephen Hernandez, Meredith Inglesby, Molly Jobe, James Judy, Eric Jon Mahlum, Anthony Rosenthal, Michael Ryan, Jordan Samuels, Jack Sippel, Andrew Wilson, and Chaz Wolcott.
Although based on a book by four-time Tony Award winner Harvey Fierstein, the truth of the matter is that the plot of NEWSIES is almost tangential to the experience that Director Jeff Calhoun has created. Song and dance truly take center stage, which explains the 23 major theatrical nominations the show received – including eight Tony Award nods, so it’s no surprise that NEWSIES won Tony, Drama Desk, and Outer Critics Circle Awards for score and choreography.
Featuring a Tony Award-winning score with music by eight-time Academy Award winner Alan Menken and lyrics by Jack Feldman, NEWSIES is all about the power anthems. Featuring blaring trumpets and emboldened drum cadences, songs like “The World Will Know” and “Once And For All” feature lively orchestrations that make you want to puff out your chest and join the Newsies in their strike. The all-male harmony in these numbers is intoxicating, and the many choruses in which each Newsie sings a different part—sometimes even different words—magically comes together in producing a singular, mellifluous sound.
Intermixed with these anthems is a diverse array of musical styles that give the show variety and pizzazz. Menken has written so many great ballads in his career, and NEWSIES is certainly no exception. For instance, Jack paints a beautiful vision of life out west in his signature ballad “Santa Fe,” which both opens and closes the first act in a fire escape “penthouse” above the streets of New York. DeLuca did a phenomenal job of acting throughout this iconic song—combining the unique timbre of his voice, a strong New York style accent, and great vocal control to deliver a memorable performance.
Stephanie Styles does a great job as the sassy, rebellious Katherine. Her solo number, entitled “Watch What Happens” is easily the one of the most difficult songs of the evening. Up-tempo and with a jumble of lyrics that is designed to reflect her vivid stream of consciousness, “Watch What Happens” showcases Styles’ star quality as she floated effortlessly from verse to verse, culminating in a theatrical belt that Styles handled with finesse.
The song that captures the burgeoning romance between Jack and Katherine—“Something to Believe In”—is a lush duet that embellishes the second act. A little reminiscent of “A Whole New World”—which Menken also wrote—the song blends Deluca and Styles’ voices in a way that mirrors their escalating on-stage relationship.
My favorite song of the evening came from Crutchie (Zachary Sayle) in a number that was added to the Broadway production before the national tour: “Letter from the Refuge.” A touching number, “Letter from the Refuge” is another stream-of-consciousness-like song in which Crutchie writes to Jack, his best friend, after being imprisoned in a refuge for orphaned children. Sayle was one of the best singers of the night and was able to set the emotional arc of the show in a short three-minute number. Bravo.
Medda Larkin (Angela Grovey)—one of Jack’s benefactors who owns a theatre at the Bowery—held the audience in the palm of her hand in her comedic rendition of “That’s Rich,” an upbeat number that she performs for patrons of her Bowery theatre. With a powerhouse voice like she has, it’s a shame that Grovey only gets one song to showcase her talent.
Finally, while technically the villain, Joseph Pulitzer’s (Steve Blanchard) rendition of “The Bottom Line” was a well-acted, well-performed number that created an enigmatic characterization of Pulitzer that was at-once vicious and yet also pleasant.
The choreography and dancing is second to none. With pirouettes, backflips, and more twirls and spins than you can count, NEWSIES captures the best that musical theatre has to offer in terms of choreography. Each of the Newsies is a standalone triple-threat, and the army of Newsies dancing in unison, in pairs, and in trios creates order out of controlled chaos that fits the gang as a group of independent, high-energy teenaged boys coming together in common purpose.
“Seize The Day” features iconic NEWSIES choreography in which the newsboys dance on pieces of ripped newspaper—a creative way to incorporate the papers into the show. However, the climax of the choreography came for me in “King of New York”—a lively tap number in which the newsboys dance atop chairs and tables as they celebrate their newfound glory. And, just when you think the amazing choreography is over, you realize that the curtain call is, of course, essentially a musical dance-off between the star-studded cast mates—the built-in encore.
The set is also worth celebrating. With a three-level set that rises over 24 feet high and features three completely automated towers made of steel and aluminum, the three automated towers move about the stage and twist to reconfigure themselves to create the show’s many locations, including fire escapes, a theatre, and the Brooklyn Bridge. It’s a creative set that, while minimalist, creates an imaginative and flexible foundation for the story to be told.
I first saw NEWSIES in 2012 upon first opening on Broadway—when it was just scheduled for 101 performances—and instantly became one of the “fansies” that has kept the show going and going. The show ended up playing over 1,005 performances—entertaining more than 1 million fansies—and I hope will continue to entertain many more audiences to come.
Be sure to “Seize the Day” and check out Disney’s NEWSIES before it leaves Washington, DC at The National Theatre on June 21st!
Running Time: Approximately 2 hours and 30 minutes, including a 15-minute intermission.
NEWSIES plays through Sunday, June 21, 2015 at The National Theatre – 1321 Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W. in Washington, D.C. For tickets, purchase them online. Check out the rest of the NEWSIES 2015 tour schedule here.
Extra! Extra! An Interview with Ben Cook: He’s Home and He’s in ‘Newsies’ at The National Theatre by Joel Markowitz on DCMetroTheaterArts.