Ottawa Citizen, Octobert 28, 2015 Photo. Deen Van Meer.
Maybe Ontario’s disgruntled public school teachers should take up dance. It sure helps the put-upon workers in Newsies express their collective will when battling their dastardly overlord.
Mind you, the teachers would have to log a few hours of practice to be as nimble and emotive as these dancers. Splendidly choreographed by Christopher Gattelli, the newsies – those young, persistent men who once hawked newspapers on the mean streets of many cities – leap, flip and tap their way through some terrific routines as they tangle with Joseph Pulitzer, the heartless publisher of the New York World.
Pulitzer, faced with declining circulation and pushed by his own greed, has decided to up the price he charges to the newsies who must buy each paper they sell. Already living somewhere well short of the luxurious, the lads rally behind fellow newsboy Jack Kelly (played with cocky charisma and fine voice by Joey Barreiro) when he decides enough is enough and leads his comrades in a boisterous and risky walkout. Pulitzer has not only money but the force of law and municipal politics on his side. Fortunately, Kelly has the force of his own moral rectitude, not to mention slowly evolving social perspectives on the shame of child labour, behind him.
Originally a Disney movie, the David-and-Goliath storyline is inspired by the real-life, 1899 strike of newsboys in New York. That may help account for the ring of reality underpinning the musical’s feel-good, black-and-white but still-well-wrought book by Harvey Fierstein (lyrics by Jack Feldman, often-heroic music by Alan Menken). It may also help account for the care that Gattelli has taken to create dance numbers that are collective expressions of joy, anger and determination but still leave room for the embodiment of each character’s individuality.
There is, of course, a love interest. Morgan Keene is Katherine, a young reporter committed to overcoming the tradition of women reporting on soft-core events like vaudeville shows and fashion. Taking it upon herself to cover the strike, she falls for Kelly whose well-masked vulnerable side appeals to her as much as his inherent goodness and self-confidence.
She’s also attracted to his surprising complexity: a street-wise survivor injustice, he has a flair for drawing and painting; a guy who’s carved out a place for himself in the big city, he longs for the peace and beauty of the west coast. It’s a mix that appeals to the woman and the reporter.
Keene, who like Barreiro has recently joined this production’s cast, needs to relax and have more fun in her role. As well, she needs to overcome her tendency to go nasal when singing, a flaw that detracts from the clever mix of trepidation and excitement that is Watch What Happens, her solo.
Elsewhere on stage, Steve Blanchard’s Joseph Pulitzer is slightly cartoonish, but then where would musicals be without hyperbole? One assumes his declaration, “If it’s not in the papers, it never happened” is not mouthed in the offices of modern-day newspaper publishers.
The large cast under demanding director Jeff Calhoun also includes Zachary Sayle as Kelly’s sidekick Crutchie (let’s hear more of that voice, folks) and Ethan Steiner as the precocious budding newsie Les.
The orchestra under James Dodgson sometimes overwhelmed the singers on opening night, and – as so often happens when these touring productions play Southam Hall – poor sound quality made voices thin.
Tobin Ost’s urban set is outstanding, shifting in the blink of an eye from inner-city grit to Pulitzer’s well-appointed office. Just the kind of thing worth dancing about.
Continues until Nov. 1. Tickets: NAC box office, Ticketmaster outlets, 1-866-991-2787, ticketmaster.ca