The Barn Theatre’s Newsies is everything a musical should be — and more than one might expect. It’s a wonderful vehicle for the very talented ensemble cast who’ve been hard at work all summer long, and yet they enthusiastically leap, twirl, tap, sing their hearts out, and otherwise powerfully tell a fictionalized account of the newsboy strike of 1899 — a tale very much worth telling.
The 2011 Disney musical, like other Disney musicals, emerged from a Disney film, in this case the mediocre 1992 Newsies that starred a teenage Christian Bale and earned a cult following. Unlike other Disney stage musicals, it relies less on technical feats and heightens the very real, compelling drama with soulful music, dance, and characters—all made superb at The Barn.
“Headlines don’t sell papes. Newsies sell papes,” cry the the New York City street urchins, claiming what little power they have in the fin de siecle media machine. When Joseph Pulitzer raises the newsboys’ costs without increasing their rate of return, the boys band together in solidarity against the oligarch and his thugs, risking all they have to rise up against injustice using collective bargaining.
Director Hans Friedrich does extraordinary things with the cast of more than 30 actors, who in turn do magnificent things with the intelligent book by Harvey Fierstein and terrific music by Alan Menken with lyricist Jack Feldman under musical direction from Matt Shabala.
Jonnie Carpathios is a charming Jack Kelly, the ringleader and artist, with a perfectly gorgeous tenor that makes marvelous harmonies, especially with Justin M. Roth as Crutchie in “Santa Fe.” And he has wonderful chemistry with Kasady Kwiatkowska, who really comes into her own in the role of feminist Katharine Plumber, a terrific composite character of the reporter and love interest from the film, who is “busting out of the social pages” to write hard news. Her solo “Watch What Happens” is one of the best numbers in the show. Other powerful performances abound (from nearly everyone on stage, in fact), though 10-year-old Braedon Davis deserves recognition for his convincing if not downright professional portrayal of Les.
The leads here are fabulous, but it’s the ensemble and their most excellent execution of Jamey Grisham’s delightful choreography that boldly draws from practically the entire lexicon of Western dance that provide the real star of this show. Balletic leaps en attitude, fouetté turns, high kicks with dramatic arms, tapping and hoofing on tabletops and cane-backed chairs all show their athleticism, artistry, range and polish.
Very smart and creative technical choices support the excellent cast in creating the period and various interesting and usable spaces. Samantha Snow’s multi-level set complete with stairs and ladders stage left and right makes for convincing tenement street scenes, a theater, an office, and more, with the fabulous backdrop of a sheet and clothesline where images of the original Newsies, among others, are projected. Michael Wilson Morgan’s attention to detail with costumes that run the gamut from the tweeds, plaids, and suspenders of the boys to glamorous burlesque frocks and suits fit for a media mogul and would-be president add to the 19th century visual feast. And Mike McShane’s lights exquisitely highlight the delightful dancing.
Some fairly consistent problems with sound levels and accents as well as an overreliance on synthesizer, despite an excellent orchestra, are pretty easy to overlook amid such a tremendous production that’s both beautiful and meaningful. And with a stage happily overrun with men, the women of the cast just about take over the especially good cabaret after the performance,which is not to be missed.