Newsies: the news is it’s frickin’ fantastic

Newsies TUTS

Just wait till they start dancing. (Photo by Lindsay Elliott)

This show features some of the best musical-theatre choreography I’ve ever seen — and I’m gay and old, so I have seen a lot of musical theatre, my children.

Newsies is based on an actual newsboys’ strike that took place in New York City in 1899. Publishers Joseph Pulitzer (the same guy who founded the Pulitzer Prizes) and William Randolph Hearst conspired to squeeze more money out of the kids — often immigrant kids — who were selling their papers on the streets. With little to lose, the boys rebelled, violently at first, and won concessions.

In the musical’s cleaned-up version of the story, a charismatic 17-year-old named Jack Kelly leads the rebellion supported by his brainier co-worker Davey. Jack’s brother-by-choice is a disabled younger boy named Crutchie. And the flirtatious Jack has his eye on Katherine, a sympathetic young newspaper reporter. Together, they all struggle for workplace justice.

Speaking of workplace justice, the official title of the musical is Disney’s Newsies— and Disney’s exploitation of the story is so cynical it’s enough to make you puke. Working for the Mouse, a survey released last year, revealed that two-thirds of the employees at Disney’s Anaheim theme park — three-quarters of those with young kids — lacked sufficient access to safe and nutritious food and 11% had experienced homelessness within the previous two years. Also in 2018, the LA Times reported that 85% of Disneyland employees were being paid less than $15 an hour, although revenue had increased by 98% the previous year. Disneyland requires its workers to smile, but 43% said that they couldn’t afford dental care.

I digress. Despite the provenance of the musical, this semi-professional Theatre Under the Stars production is spectacularly good.

Director and choreographer Julie Tomaino has cast extremely well. Adam Charles delivers a charismatically confident performance as Jack. His New York accent is big and so is his physicality — the way he leans into Katherine, they way he tosses his arm over Crutchie’s shoulder — but he’s not overacting, this characterization is just full.  And Charles can sing: he hits stratospheric notes in “Santa Fe”.

Cole Smuland brings a deeply impressive combination of innocence, musical talent, and comic timing to Crutchie. This guy just might become a star. And Julia Ullrich makes a savvy, charming Katherine — with a sure, bell-like voice.

But it’s Tomaino’s choreography that’s the knockout. Newsies offers a whole lot of opportunities for dancing and Tomaino’s accomplishments on this front are through the roof. The moves are explosive, athletic, acrobatic — dancers are backflipping all of the place, just flying! — and the patterns are deliciously clean and complex: while most of the company is executing one set of moves, individual dancers will shoot out like fireworks in individual ornamentations. In a number in which the characters repeatedly chant “Strike!”, their poses evoke all sorts of power and fury — from Communist poster art to flamenco. And “King of New York,” the big tap dance number that opens Act 2, is dazzling. Even as that number fades, two ensemble members, Sebastian Issighos and Graeme Kitagawa, dance a little coda: the rhythms they tap out are so tricky, their skill is so impressive, and the understatement of the moment is so cool that remembering it now brings tears to my eyes.

The talent in this company goes deep. To fill out the big gang of newsboys, Tomaino has cast a number of women: she clearly went for the best dancers she could find, so her decision is entirely justified. Every single body on that stage is worth delighting in.

Set designer Francesca Albertazzi plays a skilled variation on the standard Newsies set: elegant minimalist scaffolding. And Christina Sinosich completes the period urban look with handsome costumes in a sober palette.

Sometimes I wonder how Theatre Under the Stars gets away with charging professional prices for semi-professional shows. Not this time. Newsies is as fully realized as any musical you’re going to see in Vancouver.

NEWSIES Music by Alan Menken. Lyrics by Jack Feldman. Book by Harvey Fierstein. Based on the film written by Bob Tzudiker and Noni White. Directed and choreographed by Julie Tomaino. A Theatre Under the Stars production. In Malkin Bowl on Wednesday, July 10. Continues in rep until August 17. Tickets.

 

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About Colin Thomas

Colin Thomas is a Vancouver-based editor, an award-winning playwright, and an established theatre critic. Colin helps writers unlock the full potential of their novels, short stories, screenplays, and children's books.

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