Newsies the Musical – Theatre Review: Phoenix Theatre, Phoenix

It doesn’t happen often, but when it does, it’s a genuine, theatrical thrill. It’s where a regional production surpasses the enjoyment of either the Broadway show or the National Tour. It happened last year with Stray Cat Theatre’s American Idiot. It’s happened again, this time at Phoenix Theatre.

The 1992 film may have flopped (and with good reason, despite its cult following) but somehow Disney’s live stage version of Newsies the Musical has proved hugely popular ever since it made its Broadway debut in 2012. The regional production you’ll see at Phoenix Theatre may not be on quite the same scale, but in terms of sheer, accomplished entertainment, the kind that unexpectedly hooks you from the opening and immediately reels you in, this Newsies the Musical is unbeatable.

In movie terms, the story of a real-life 1899 newsboy’s strike proved to have little appeal, despite the appearances of big names such as Christian Bale, Ann-Margaret, and Robert Duvall. Somehow, the story of paper delivery boys feeling the pinch of unfair raised prices and forming a union to protest felt too minor. Yet, popularity slowly grew due to the home video market. A theatrical tryout in New Jersey, then a transfer to Broadway proved more popular than expected. What was supposed to be a limited engagement in New York turned into a two year run, then a national tour. Amazingly, Newsies the Musical recovered its cost faster than any other Disney live stage production, a considerable achievement for any company, but even more remarkable when you consider that the other Disney Broadway musicals Newsies surpassed included such grand scale successes as Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King. Now, that’s impressive.

Newsies the Musical takes its cue from the 19th century New York characters, The Dead End Kids and The Bowery Boys, with just a dash of something Dickensian added to the setting. It’s already a hard-knock life for this ragamuffin gang of youthful streetwise newspaper sellers. And when the publisher of the New York World, Joseph Pulitzer (Rusty Ferracane) gets greedy and raises prices at the expense of the boys, the ragtag team of underage sellers get organized and revolt. With names like Specs (John Batchan), Mush (Matthew Dean), Race (Eddie Olmo ll) and Crutchie (Brandon Brown) to name just a few, the boys of the Burroughs take a stand. As intrepid report Katherine (Emilie Doering) states, they’re a bunch of Davids taking on Pulitzer’s Goliath. They’re all about to unite, walk the walk, and tawk the NYC tawk.

On Broadway, above all, it was the ever-moving set design that impressed. The massive, multi-layered, metallic ladders and balconies, representing everything from tenement buildings to factory gates, slid smoothly around the stage, constantly creating in an instant new areas of the city for the boys to explore. Robert Kovach’s local scenic design has impressively captured a similar feel but on a smaller scale, successfully adapting the original look to fit the Phoenix stage. But what impresses the most in director Michael Barnard’s production is more than a workable, eye-catching set, it’s both the casting and James Kinney’s exhausting choreography, echoing all of Christopher Gatelli’s original moves with its leaps, back flips, cartwheels, somersaults, and pirouetting.

Unless you’re already familiar with the score through repeated plays, the music tends to blend. And while they’re workable in the moment, none stand out, with the exception of Katherine’s humorous Sondheim inspired Watch What Happens, terrifically performed by Doering as her character voices her doubts regarding her writing abilities. The ensemble pieces where the boys take center stage with their rousing calls of solidarity are more anthems than songs, and often difficult to tell apart. But what works so well is how the young cast sell them. They’re as aggressive on the boards as they are selling the papers, culminating each number with a crowd-pleasing, inspirational air salute that concludes every large number. Ending each exhaustive dance with fists in the air practically demands applause.

It’s a large cast, all of whom from the youngest to the oldest deliver, but those you’ll remember the most include the above-mentioned Doering’s hugely likable Katherine, Rusty Ferracane’s Pulitzer, who with his graying wig and thick gray beard makes an impressive villain without overdoing the villainous snarls, Chanel Bragg’s vaudeville entertainer Medda Larkin (she tears the house down with her big number That’s Rich) and the show’s central character.

As Jack, the leader of the gang, James D. Gish continually draws your attention. With his shoulder shrugs, his local NYC accent, and his facial expressions often resembling nervous tics that never quit, he’s like a walking, talking time bomb possessing an energy that if pushed might go off at any moment. Compared to previous performers seen in this role by this columnist – including the movie’s Christian Bale – Gish has crafted the character’s most enjoyable portrayal. He’s truly made the part his own.

But there’s another element to consider that makes this Phoenix Theatre production of Newsies work so well. There’s the intimacy of the theatre itself that helps draw audiences closer, something that worked against the show in larger venues. The ability to see everything at close hand not only helps you notice every facial movement or expression with greater clarity, but the occasional meeting of the eye between an audience member and a performer creates a connect not normally associated with larger auditoriums. It’s something only a theatre like Phoenix can accomplish. It can make you feel circumstantially involved.

To date, this Phoenix Theatre production is the easily most satisfying production of Newsies the Musical covered by this column. And certainly, the most enjoyable.

Pictures courtesy of Reg Madison Photography

Newsies the Musical will continue at Phoenix Theatre, Phoenix until December 31

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