Extra! Extra! Read all about it! Disney’s “Newsies” at Village Theatre, on through the afternoon of New Year’s Eve, is a show you won’t want to miss. Directed by Village Artistic Director Steve Tomkins, who will be retiring at the end of the season in May, the musical tells the story of the Newsboys’ Strike of 1899, a historical early labor union movement by youngsters in New York City.
Jack Kelly (Joey Barreiro, reprising his role from the “Newsies” national tour) and his band of teenage newsboys or “Newsies,” support themselves or — for those who are lucky enough to have them — their families, by hawking newspapers every day on the streets of 1899 Manhattan. It’s a tough life for the young Newsies, many of whom sleep on the streets; Jack dreams of escaping the concrete jungle and starting a new life in Santa Fe, New Mexico Territory.
Their circumstances get even more difficult, however, when newspaper mogul Joseph Pulitzer (Greg Stone) raises the cost of his papers for the Newsies, forcing the Newsies to sell more papers just to meet the same meager wage they were previously making. Unable to afford the hike in cost, Jack and fellow Newsie Davey (Mike Spee, though played by understudy Ethan Carpenter the night I saw the show) organize the boys into an unofficial union and start a strike.
Aspiring journalist Katherine Plumber (Taylor Niemeyer), desperate to break out of the society pages to which turn-of-the-century female reporters were relegated, draws attention to the boys’ actions in the press. Soon, the strike has spread to all five boroughs of New York, showing the publishing titans that they won’t be oppressed. But when Pulitzer sends his henchmen and the cops out to beat the boys to a pulp and drag them to a cruel prison for juveniles, the Newsies have to decide how much danger they are willing to face.
Easily the most breathtaking aspect of the show is the incredible amount of stunts performed by the 16 Newsies. In an interview last month, Choreographer Katy Tabb told the Reporter that many of the actors playing Newsies had gymnastics experience, and it’s easy to see why this extra skill would be necessary. In every number they perform, the Newsies don’t simply dance — they leap and spin through the air, tumble, cartwheel and even backflip across the stage.
Rico Lastrapes, who plays the sarcastic, cigar-smoking Newsie called Race, described one set of moves, all taking place within a few musical beats, in which the Newsies slide across the stage, do some kicks, then smoothly get up and perform a pirouette in the air — while staying in unison.
“It’s truly a team effort,” he said.
The dances include plenty of clever ways to incorporate props related to the news industry, such as messenger bags, newsboy caps and of course, plenty of newspapers. Though one dance move that involved ripping apart and dancing on newspapers, crumpling the pages and tossing them into the audience broke this journalist’s heart a little, the effect was still spectacular.
On top of their A-plus dancing, the Newsies still excel at acting and singing. There is always the danger of dialogue getting lost or coming out cheesy in musicals packed with songs, but the Newsies deliver each of their lines in a way that makes us care about their plight; even those Newsies who only have a few lines make them count. Powerhouse songs like “The World Will Know,” “Seize the Day” and “King of New York” are so full of energy from each person; you can feel the Newsies’ determination in their cause.
Lastrapes said that Tomkins, Tabb and Music Director R.J. Tancioco have organized the numbers so that the Newsies “all balance each other out pretty well,” switching off between who gives more energy and who holds back a little. For instance, Lastrapes’ big dance sequence comes in “King of New York,” in which he can showcase his tap specialty.
“They found a way for us to showcase the amount of energy we can give,” said Michael Krenning, who plays Crutchie, a Newsie nicknamed for the crutch he requires.
The addition of Katherine in the stage show is a welcome change from the 1992 Christian Bale film, in which her character was a boy. Yours truly has obvious reason to identify with the character of an intrepid female journalist, defying the gender restrictions of her day, but Niemeyer brings an extra charm and likability to Katherine besides what is written in the script. Despite the revelation that she is from a privileged background in a show where wealthy equals villain, Niemeyer plays Katherine with just the right amount of cleverness, sensitivity and charm, so that she instantly wins you over to her side. A highlight for me was hearing the all-too-familiar struggles of writer’s block manifested in her number “Watch What Happens.”
Besides all of the fun, however, at its core, “Newsies” gets to some pretty serious social issues. We see a group of perhaps the most vulnerable members of society — low-income children, among them orphans, homeless individuals, people with disabilities and immigrants — going up against the corporate fat cats who sing about “the safest solutions that bolster the bottom line,” solutions that harm those who work for them.
The central theme of “Newsies” is a message that feels more important than ever in the current climate, when the political conversation centers on the income gap, the role of big business in lawmaking and the small, powerful few who control the lives of the working classes struggling to climb the ladder and scrape out a better life for their families.
“It’s unfortunate to see that there are still issues that really haven’t changed much at all in a hundred years,” Krenning said. “We’re still feeling the need to tell a story of what is essentially the gap between … those in the top 1 percent like Joseph Pulitzer … and those [in the lower classes] who also have to work. The story I think resonates with a lot of people because they can relate … It touches on something that is near and dear to people’s hearts.”
The conflicts of “Newsies” especially hit close to home here in one of most rapidly-growing and most expensive cities in America, where property values and housing prices are skyrocketing, bringing prosperity to one group — while others are left in the dust, not knowing if they should stick it out or “run off to Santa Fe.” (In an ironic coincidence, it is not only Jack the Newsie who sings of running away to Santa Fe in 1899 — a friend of mine, born and raised in the Pacific Northwest, is moving to Santa Fe this very week because of the Puget Sound’s rent prices.)
Lastrapes commented wryly that one line in “Seize the Day” makes reference to “those with power safe in their tower,” noting that certain business tycoons in today’s America have their own towers. The class struggle is “a fight that never stops,” Lastrapes said, but he observed that “Newsies” reminds all of us that through hard times, everyone — even homeless, penniless newsboys — can make a difference.
“What I love about ‘Newsies’ is that it’s that optimistic reminder that the future is in our youth. They have the power to make the change,” Lastrapes said. “It’s inspiring to know that change is possible, change can happen.”
“Newsies” plays Wednesdays through Sundays and select Tuesdays through Dec. 31 at the Francis J. Gaudette Theatre, located at 303 Front St. N., Issaquah. For tickets, call the box office at 425-392-2202 or visit www.villagetheatre.org/issaquah/newsies.php.