While Disney has re-hashed and remade nearly every one of their renaissance era classic films into a shiny CGI remake, in 2011 it was far-fetched to think that a 90s flop film about the newsboys strike would bring The Mouse one of their theatrical wing’s biggest hits in years. Disney’s “Newsies” has been a smash from its run at Paper Mill Playhouse, to Broadway, now finally to the Broward Center for the Performing Arts where Slow Burn Theatre Co’s production blows the roof off the Amaturo Theater for several nights a week. The Ft. Lauderdale run of Disney’s “Newsies” runs now until June 25 with tickets available here.
As a laundry line of white garments rises with a scrim, we are introduced to two young men resting above the concrete jungle of New York City. Jack Kelly (Samuel Cadieux) and Crutchie (Joel Hunt) lament their hard-knock life. A deviation from the 1992 film, the show opens on Kelly singing a prologue version of “Santa Fe” where he pines to leave New York for a life of somewhere that’s “clean and green and pretty.” If that riff sounds familiar, it’s because the music of the show was written by Alan Menken, famous for his work on “Little Shop of Horrors” that he and lyricist Howard Ashman co-wrote before going onto become Disney royalty with “The Little Mermaid” and “Beauty and the Beast.” As leading man Jack Kelly, Samuel Cadieux carries the role of the cavalier cowboy of Manhattan with a Brando-esque swagger beneath a pageboy cap and old New York dialect, that has a presence to be reckoned with even in heartfully fantasizing about living out west.
Kicking the show into high-gear with soaring grand jetés and backbends, we’re introduced to the rest of the lodging house preparing for a day of doling out the news to the citizens of Manhattan with “Carrying the Banner.” With the original Broadway choreography developed by Andy Blankenbeuhler of “Hamilton” fame, the show has a momentous kinetic energy beneath its stellar gravity-defying movements. In Slow Burn’s rendition, choreographer Trent Soyster interprets Blankenbeuhler’s dance for the Amaturo stage to have both the grandeur and the technical polish of the original Broadway show. Dance captain Austin Carroll performs as newsboy Albert and various New York citizens while keeping the cast on their toes alongside Assistant Dance captain Samuel Colina who plays Henry alongside other New Yorkers.
While the boys, mostly orphans, are doled out their papers to sell for the day we are introduced to a duo of Davey (Mickey White) and his young brother Les (Nate Colton) who both come from a two-parent home are resorting to a life of selling newspapers due to their father being incapacitated on the job due to a work injury. Mickey White’s Davey plays straight from the playbook of Ben Fankhauser’s portrayal and as the wise-cracking younger sibling Les, Nate Colton is an absolute stand-out.
As the newsboys riff on their ability to spin a headline into a shiny dime, Joseph Pulitzer (Matthew W. Korinko) newspaper publisher of the “New York World” is racking his mind to cut costs on the paper due to declining circulation. Along with his three employees Seitz (Geoffrey Mergele), Bunsen (Jerel Brown), and secretary Hannah (Jennifer Fraser), the quartet mull about a solution in the song “The Bottom Line” where they resolve to raise the price of papers from 50 cents to 60 cents per 100 newspapers. While some of the creatives behind “Hamilton” also developed “Newsies,” the show is a historical fiction, using some real life names alongside amalgamated characters. Pulitzer and the Delancey Brothers are real-life figures while Jack Kelly and New York Sun entertainment writer-turned-strike documentarian Katherine Plumber are created to give the show its stakes. Playing the show’s antagonist, Matthew W. Korinko returns to Slow Burn Theatre Co’s after his roles as Mr. Banks in “Mary Poppins” and Mr. Mushnik in “Little Shop of Horrors” respectively. Here he plays to type as the designated villain of the show, yet the songs given to Pulitzer lack a sense of urgency, having an indistinguishable timbre or genre from the rest of the show’s musical theater and jazz-inspired tunes.
Having lived the majority of his life on the run from living in a Refuge home, subject to squalid conditions, Jack is chased down by Warden Snyder, who runs the Refuge. In Jack’s haste he sneaks Davey and Les into the vaudeville theater of Medda Larkin (Kareema Khouri), a brassy dame of the stage who hires Jack on the side to paint her stage backdrops. Khouri’s portrayal of Medda Larkin has a larger-than-life quality especially when she belts out her feature song “That’s Rich.” As Jack traverses the set, he encounters the plucky entertainment journalist for the New York Sun, Katherine Plumber (Lea Marinelli), seated in a box above the stage, notebook in hand documenting Medda’s show. As Plumber grows an interest in the story of Jack and the newsboys, she takes it upon herself to shift her focus from reviewing vaudeville to capturing their plight as they strike in the show-stopping, patter singing, high belting “Watch What Happens.” Marinelli’s spin as Katherine has the matter-of-factly diction, vocal agility and especially the capability to keep pace with the newsies in her featured dance sequences.
At the core of the show, “Newsies” is about labor and fair working conditions and tells the story through dance and solidarity. As the boys form their battalion through the union of newsboys, the storytelling through movement becomes more apparent. The high-flying leaps and solo moments transform from self-expression to a unified armada flanking the Amaturo theater stage. The eclectic style includes a massive tap dance in the second act opener “King of New York.” Fight director Tim Canali and fight captain John Cavaseno work in tandem to develop some truly visceral scenes of choreographed violence, mostly given to union-busters Oscar and Morris Delancey (Chris Alvarez and Nate Promkul). Alan Menken and Jack Feldman’s music and lyrics here provide a utilitarian backdrop to the story beats of Harvey Fierstein’s book, laden with all the signature New Yorker quips one comes to expect from Fierstein. While the cast tends to feature young adult actors, the reality of child labor exploitation in this time period forced children to neglect their education, keeping struggling working class children as struggling working class adults. The show has plenty of relevance to our modern strifes even as politicians call to revoke child labor laws as well as, the on-going WGA strike for fair wages for writers that has seen the union anthem “Seize the Day” adopted on several picket lines. The imagery of David versus Goliath reinforces the struggle we face in being made small against a small but powerful ruling class, but solidarity in numbers makes us bigger in the face of adversity.
Slow Burn Theater Co continues to push the limits of regional theater at Fort Lauderdale’s premier Broadway house. Disney’s “Newsies” is a high-flying, explosive spectacle of dance and movement with a powerful message relevant to the fight for fair labor. The Ft. Lauderdale run of Disney’s “Newsies” runs now until June 25 with tickets available here.