Most shows from Disney Theatrical Productions are adaptations of highly successful movies such as “The Lion King,” “Frozen,” “Beauty and the Beast” and “Mary Poppins.” Compared with those musicals, Newsies, a stage version of the 1992 family-friendly motion picture (and a box office bomb in theatres), sounds highly risky. The show ended up being a Broadway hit in 2012, and Moonlight Stage Productions is now presenting a rousing version in Vista.
Towards the end of the 19th century, Lower Manhattan paperboys, including the orphan Jack Kelly (Dillon Klena), his physically-disabled best friend Crutchie (Austyn Myers), and the flirtatious Romeo (Tyler Fromson) enjoy the financial benefits of their busy jobs. Things change when the New York World publisher, Joseph Pulitzer (Hank Stratton), increases the price of newspaper editions, which negatively impacts the boys’ financial margins.
With help from his new friends Davey (Scott Arnold) and Les Jacobs (Noah Baird) and a reporter, Katherine Plumber (Katharine McDonough), Jack and the other “newsies” decide to strike against Joseph’s greedy decision.
Director Larry Raben depicts a New York that’s grimy and dangerous. Through his production, the audience feels the anger that drives the strikers’ actions in many of the big events experienced by Jack and his friends.
The Newsies orchestra, with musical director/conductor Randi Ellen Rudolph at the helm, provides a powerful musical base for the strike. Trumpeter Nathan Williams, keyboardists Chris Kim and Michelle Sorger and drummer Steve Wright are just a few of the musicians who contribute to the high-spirited energy at the Moonlight Amphitheatre. Their music always feels appropriate to the different New York areas where the action occurs.
David McQuillen Robertson’s set, Jennifer Edwards’ lighting, the costumes coordinated and executed by Carlotta Malone and Crystel Burden and Jonathan Infante’s projections and video depict a variety of unique locations. These include a Dickensian refuge and a burlesque theatre owned by Medda Larkin (Shirley Johnston), a star who cares about Jack. Although it can be difficult to appreciate Infante’s work at times (a staircase blocks part of the projections), his efforts still effectively add context to the 1899 setting.
A number of emotions are expressed through Karl Warden’s choreography, which features movements that represent fury and defiance in songs such as “The World Will Know,” “Seize the Day” and “Brooklyn’s Here.”
While dancing is featured prominently in the majority of musical numbers, Warden also choreographs a handful of chase and fight scenes that add tension to the evening. His storytelling in these sequences help raise the stakes for Jack and the ones closest to him.
Optimism is far from absent, especially in some of the popular songs from the film, with music and lyrics from Alan Menken and Jack Feldman. “Santa Fe (Prologue)” optimistically explores Jack’s dream for his future, and “King of New York” joyfully represents the hopes of the various Newsies. In addition, Harvey Fierstein’s book brings plenty of wise-guy comic relief to add levity during the strike. Each of the performers who play the Newsies inhabits their roles with just the right balance of wit and earnestness.
Fierstein’s writing occasionally makes Jack a little too eager in his friendliness, but Klena sells the inner dilemmas and problems that the orphan faces, while Arnold, Myers, Fromson, James Odom and the others earn the sympathy of the audience early on in the story.
Special attention should be given to the young co-star Baird, who is a naturally funny triple-threat performer. A lesser performer would come across as too boastful in the role of the extremely confident Les Jacobs, yet Baird is always an engaging presence onstage.
Songs taken from the motion picture are almost all sung by the newsies, while the new numbers that leave a big impression are given to Medda and Katherine. Menken’s melody for “That’s Rich,” brings to mind famous vaudeville tunes, and Feldman’s lyrics in “Watch What Happens” represent Katherine’s inner thoughts when she writes about the newspaper hawkers. In a show that’s focused more on group numbers, the performers standout as musically expressive soloists.
Featuring surprises for fans of the film, as well as for those who haven’t seen it, Newsies continues an entertaining 38th summer season for the outdoor venue. Anyone who feels frustrated with their job can be empowered by the uplifting story, energy and music.