Newsies somersaults into town
I learned something I didn’t know at Newsies, the high-flying Disney musical now at the Orpheum Theater under SHN auspices. I learned that the boys who used to hawk newspapers on the streets of New York a century ago had to buy the papers they hoped to unload. In other words, they were on their own. They lined up in the morning to fork over 5 cents for ten copies, and if they failed to sell all ten, tough luck.
Practiced by the likes of William Randolph Hearst (The Evening Journal) and Joseph Pulitzer (The Evening World), the system was a form of exploitative child labor. Because it didn’t happen in factories, it’s been under the radar for more than a hundred years, but now it’s onstage.
A musical based on child exploitation? Oliver paved the way, and Newsies follows the same path–or, rather, it jumps and stomps all over it. At times its testosterone-fueled dancing seems determined to pound it into dust.
Ten-papers-for-5-cents turns out to be the key event in the show. Pulitzer is its villain, and boy is he a villain (you can practically hear a snake hiss whenever he leans over the desk in his fancy office). Profit is his aim. His circulation isn’t high enough, he’s not pulling in enough dough, so he ups the price the helpless newsies have to pay.
Helpless? Not these spunky lads. Based on an actual 1899 newsboy rebellion, the musical traces how the urchins bond and battle with a seemingly unbeatable foe.
They form, believe it or not, a union.
And they go on strike.
It was astonishing at the time, more than a hundred years ago, and it’s astonishing onstage now, for a different reason: the dancing, choreographed by Christopher Gattelli, which blows you away. Marked by back-flips and front-flips, by cartwheels and somersaults, by high kicking and low spins, and by Baryshnikov-like ballet moves, it has a supercharged exuberance, and its young, grinning practitioners look like they’re having a great time. Director Jeff Calhoun has said of them, “These are the best dancers in the country. The bar is so high–much higher than when I was a dancer. The kids just keep getting better and better.” This sounds like hyperbole until you see the show.
Despite this, it’s a show I wanted more from. Its stage design, comprised of a giant erector-set of a structure that folds and unfolds, doesn’t do much to evoke the story’s era; it’s too imposingly scaled. Speaking of scale, Newsies treats the paperboy strike in an overblown way, as if, banners and flags flying, it were the battle at the barricades from Les Miserables. I longed for more quiet moments, like its heroine Katherine’s gently witty “Watch What Happens” in act one, and one of the musical’s best songs, newsboy Crutchie’s touching lament, “Letter from the Refuge” in act two.
Still, there’s that thrilling dancing, which lifted the opening night audience to its feet for a standing ovation.
Newsies holds forth at the Orpheum Theater until March 15th. Upcoming SHN offerings include Matilda, encores of The Book of Mormon and The Phantom of the Opera, and a farewell visit with megastar Dame Edna Everage. For tickets/information call 666-746-1799 or visit shnsf.com.