You know the old joke: How many Broadway-style singing and dancing anthems can you fit into one Disney musical? The answer: Enough that an audience member's brain might turn to mush. But if you love those stem-winding production numbers, boy howdy do we have a show for you!
In the first act alone of Newsies, the touring behemoth now at Playhouse Square, there are three rousing anthems and one reprise, which certainly seems like enough. Add that to the towering stage set of three-story tenement staircases that rotate and move almost as much as the hyperkinetic performers, and you have a Disney-palooza of activity and special effects.
What you don't have, in any significant way, is a story that feels new and fresh. It's a mostly rose-colored tale about down-and-out kids who take on the Man, wrapped around a rather tepid love story.
Adapted from the film musical (and mini cult fave) of the same name, Newsies is a balls-to-the-wall production about the boys — runaways and orphans, mostly — who sold newspapers on the street in 1899. It features music by Alan Menken, lyrics by Jack Feldman and a book by Harvey Fierstein.
It's all based on the actual Newsboys Strike of 1899, which ended up forcing Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst to accede to the boys' demands and buy back the kids' unsold papers. The ugliness of the struggle is touched on by showing how a disabled newsboy, sensitively nicknamed Crutchie by his homeless pals, is arrested at a protest rally and thrown into a nasty juvenile detention center.
In this production, the crew of newsboys is astoundingly energetic, throwing themselves into choreographer Christopher Gattelli's jumps and spins like Olympic gymnasts mainlining Red Bull. If you don't think urchins working for pennies should be dancing in the streets, then you clearly don't get what Disney is selling.
Soon enough, the newsies learn that Pulitzer is going to soak them for more coin to buy their "papes," and the war is joined. The newsies decide to strike, led by primo-urchin Jack Kelly and aided by his brainy pal Davey (Jacob Kemp) and kid brother Les (on this night, Anthony Rosenthal). As they work their way through the thicket of anthems —"Carrying the Banner," "The World Will Know," "Seize the Day" — we see a de facto newsboy union slowly taking shape.
Defying the dictum of Mark Twain, who advised, "Never pick a fight with people who buy ink by the barrel," the boys go toe-to-toe with the newspaper honchos. The boys eventually decide to fight ink with ink and crank out their own newspaper on one of Pulitzer's discarded presses, telling their side of the story. This turns the city's newspaper readers against Pulitzer and Hearst, causing their circulation to plummet.
Since this show is a combination of history and fantasy, let's clarify. The history is: The newsboys win the day. The fantasy is: It was mostly a dance-filled lark. Of course, if this battle were set in present-day America, the ragamuffins would be condemned on Fox News for being adolescent "takers" bent on destroying freedom and trashing the Constitution.
Almost overshadowing the political story of child labor abuses and such is the love story between Jack and Katherine, a young woman journalist who initially spurns Jack's advances but then seizes on the protests as a juicy story. They fall in love, of course, and their Act 2 duet, "Something to Believe In," is a lovely respite from the pounding anthems.
In the lead role of Jack, Dan DeLuca is handsome and sings well, although he never really registers a strong presence given all his stage time. And his polished, mature demeanor doesn't quite fit the image of the real guttersnipe who led the actual newsboy revolt. That was Kid Blink, a 14-year-old with one eye and a ton of guts.
Stephanie Styles' Katherine keeps up with the boys and eventually scores some telling moments, particularly when her parentage is revealed.
There are some clever lines in the show, but they and the secondary characters are pretty much bulldozed by the immense production that surrounds them. When there are small dialogue scenes, both tender and amusing, it's a bit hard to focus since your ears are still ringing from the last musical onslaught.
That said, this is glorious Broadway overkill on the hoof, and where else in Cleveland are you going to see that? Director Jeff Calhoun allows no dust to settle as he drives his cast relentlessly. So if you like to see stage performers work for their money, Newsies is for you.
Through Nov. 16 at Playhouse Square, 1615 Euclid Ave., 216-241-6000, playhousesquare.org.
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