Continuing the theme of fighting for what's right and dipping into our nation's history for lessons learned, the Springfield Muni Opera presents its the third show of the season, Disney's Newsies, a story based on the 1899 newsboys' strike which forced a change in the way newspaper hawkers (many of them orphaned children) were compensated. The 1992 film version of Newsies, in a word, flopped. Thankfully, a live musical version rose from the ashes and continues to soar to new heights, and in this production, lingers optimistically in the air, much like the dancing newsies during one of their high-stepping numbers.
As it is not your typical Disney musical, there are no lavish sets, glittering costumes nor dancing, singing furniture. Newsies is a social justice musical about rectifying child labor laws. It's gritty and inspiring, and it absolutely deserves to be seen. Memorable music by Alan Menken with lyrics by Jack Feldman will leave audiences tapping their toes and cheering their approval, as was the case with the opening weekend crowd.
The book by Harvey Fierstein, which was based on the 1992 film, tells the simplified story of a group of hard-scrabble kids trying to survive while making pennies selling "papes" in New York City. When the villainous Joseph Pulitzer (Rich Beans) suddenly raises the price of the papers, the newsies decide to unionize and go on strike.
This is truly an ensemble piece and everyone in it shines, but especially Shaw Riggs as reluctant leader Jack Kelly, who is thoroughly engaging from start to finish. His swagger and gusto, wrapped in an expertly done New York accent, carry the show. He easily charms the audience with humor and passion, but also shows his vulnerable side with moments like the powerful reprise of "Santa Fe" at the end of Act One and the duet "Something To Believe In" with reporter and ally Katherine Plumber.
As the romantic foil, Katherine, Hannah Levin brings wit and likability to a role that could have come off as predictable and bland. It's easy to see how these two characters could fall for each other. Jakob Hankins, as best friend Crutchie, Peyton Knowski as Davey and Liam Busboom as the wisecracking Les, newcomers to the newsies beat, also turn in nuanced and memorable performances.
As noteworthy as the individual performances are, this show often rests its laurels on the numerous ensemble dance numbers. Rabble-rousers like "Carry the Banner," "King of New York," "The World Will Know" and "Seize the Day" showcase the ample talent in the cast. Dancers march, spin, flip, tap and seemingly float through air in a display of strength and determination as they fight for their cause. And they sing while doing it, aided by a strong pit chorus and orchestra with musical direction by Damien Kaplan.
Directing and choreographing team Morgan Kaplan and Andrew Maynerich, who have partnered many times to stage exciting, dance-filled musicals, deliver once again with this magnetic and spirited production. The show crackles with life and boundless, youthful energy while navigating a current of injustice and greed. A simple scaffold set in the background and perfect period costumes set the right tone and keep the focus on the performers and story.
A quibble: several microphones were not working during the show and it was a shame, because several key moments were missed. I realize many factors can wreak havoc on sound and the Muni is no stranger to the issue. I just hope someday a permanent solution to the problem can be found.
While doing a bit of research on the show, I saw Newsies referred to as a "gateway musical" because of its ability to open the door to younger generations and get them interested in live theater. This was evidenced by not only the young cast but their enthusiastic peers in the audience. But it got me thinking, isn't all theater a gateway? From director to audience member, and everyone in between, live theater opens doors wide to the power of storytelling, the strength of community and the magic that comes from the collaborative process. And oftentimes, there are important lessons to be learned. As Medda Larkin says (played by the incomparable Mary Kate Smith), "Theater is not only entertaining, It's educational." Indeed.
Newsies continues Thursday, July 14, through Sunday, July 17. Tickets can be purchased at metrotix.com or at the box office the night of the show.
Mary Young was born and raised in Springfield has been performing in, producing and directing live theater for decades. She she's done film and voice-over work and performs regularly with the improv troupe The Portuguese Rodeo Clown Company. Their podcast is Radio 680: The Voice of Syracuse.