There’s nothing fake about the news out of Toby’s Dinner Theatre. Its homegrown production of Newsies gathers such a concentration of explosive male talent under one roof that Columbia might consider an emergency cordon. Ever since the show’s debut as a theater piece in 2011, Newsies has been making the case for musicals as a young man’s game. You would probably have to look back to 1957’s West Side Story to find a new show requiring as much strenuous male movement.
The action, after all, is based on a real-life 1899 “newsboy strike” that pitted mobs of street corner ragamuffins against heartless New York City publishing titans. When Joseph Pulitzer decided to raise the wholesale cost of his newspapers, things quickly turned violent as the boys organized around a young Irish firebrand to fight back.
The original 1992 Walt Disney movie boasted a new score by Alan Menken (The Little Mermaid), with lyrics by Jack Feldman. Almost twenty years later the Broadway adaptation by Harvey Fierstein (with additional music by Menken) struggled to add meaningful roles for female performers. The musical still bears the scars of that struggle.
The strength of its legacy remains its potential for breathtaking dance. Artistic Director Toby Orenstein won the talent lotto here when she secured the services of Helen Hayes Award-winning choreographer Ilona Kessell. Kessell oversees the evening’s steady stream of exhilarating leaps, back flips, and other manner of acrobatic feats upon Scenic Designer David A. Hopkins’ rolling assemblage of scaffolding platforms.
The live orchestra, directed by Ross Scott Rawlings, provides exciting backup to the spectacle and melodic support to the singers. Individuals in solo and duet tend to fare better here than chorus numbers, where group harmonies sometimes overwhelm the lyrics. Mark Minnick and Toby Orenstein, serving as co-directors this time out, offset the book’s problematic dramatic scenes with a host of inspired casting choices.
As Jack Kelly, instigator of the strike action, is returning Hayes Award-winner Matt Hirsch. Hirsh quickly had the audience on his side with heartfelt singing, a golden Donny Osmond smile, and some mostly convincing street-tough theatrics. His full-voiced longing for a place in the sun (“Santa Fe”) and the romantic sparks set off by “Something to Believe In” earned him the loudest screams at curtain calls.
The book’s contrived romance between Kelly and his employer’s rebel daughter, Katherine, is made palatable here thanks to Toby’s favorite, MaryKate Brouillet. Brouillet lends her endearing softness to Katherine’s harder edges. She sells all the second-guessing in the Sondheim-like solo “Watch What Happens,” then runs away with that sentimental duet “Something to Believe In.”
The only other female role in the show is a brassy Bowery torch singer named Medda Larkin. Kadejah Oné absolutely crushes with the ersatz ragtime ditty “That’s Rich.” She may be pure stereotype, but she’s pure stereotype-with-pipes.
Another big voice comes courtesy of the always-amazing Russell Sunday as Joseph Pulitzer. Fierstein paints him as such a black-hearted capitalist pig that stick figures everywhere should be offended. Others providing memorable characterizations include David Bosley-Reynolds as Teddy Roosevelt (among others), Taylor Witt as Crutchie, and Jeffrey Shankle as Oscar.
Ten-year-old Cooper Trump more than pleased and delighted us on opening night in the Toby’s mainstay category of “pint-sized scene-stealer,” executing his own throat-catching back flips. He alternates in the role with the no doubt equally delightful Tyler Smallwood.
The book’s weaknesses don’t amount to much whenever the boards are thundering with the passions of the strike, or the boys sing out for justice in “The World Will Know” or “Seize the Day.” “King of New York” sets Act II off on a solid trajectory to the expected happy ending. Once again we come away in awe at a collective work of live, homegrown musical entertainment. What a treasure Howard County has been blessed with in Toby’s Dinner Theatre.
Running time: 2 hours and 40 minutes, including one 20-minute intermission.
Disney’s Newsies: The Broadway Musical plays through June 10, 2018, at Toby’s the Dinner Theatre of Columbia— 5900 Symphony Woods Road in Columbia, MD. For tickets call the box office at (410) 730-8311, or purchase them online.