TAMPA — People who pay to see a musical aren't asking for much, other than to be entertained and maybe even intellectually engaged. Anything on top of that is a bonus.
But sometimes a show surprises by hitting every angle — story, writing, acting, visual representation, music, dancing — and then some. Newsies, a touring Broadway production at the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts, is such a show.
The action centers on a consequential historical event, the New York newsboy strike of 1899. The villain is unbridled commerce exemplified by child labor and maximum exploitation for profit. Its spokesman is Joseph Pulitzer, owner of the New York World (and a buddy of William Randolph Hearst, owner of the New York Journal, who is mentioned but is not in the play).
The ragamuffin newsboys, mostly children to teenagers, are tough kids. But their survival is threatened when Pulitzer and others news magnates come up with a strategy to counter slumping sales at the end of the Spanish-American War. They decide to up the cost of bundles of newspapers, which the boys hawk on the street, from 50 to 60 cents.
The boys respond by going on strike. Their champion is Jack Kelly, an artistically talented soul and natural leader. He rallies the strikers while facing his own doubts and falling hard for the female reporter who gets his story into print for the Sun, a rival paper to the World.
The rebirth of the production is almost as remarkable as the story it represents. Originally a 1992 Disney movie starring an 18-year-old Christian Bale, Newsies flopped spectacularly at the box office.
It should have died then. But enough people believed to at least keep the concept on life support.
Years later, actor and playwright Harvey Fierstein punched up the movie screenplay with a new book. The book, coupled with ambitious choreography by Christopher Gattelli, became the basis for a stage musical by Disney Theatrical Productions. Now with the original score by Alan Menken, the show was fully rehabilitated and ready for another shot.
Newsies opened in New Jersey in 2011 and was held over. The musical moved to Broadway in 2012, where it played for two years, winning Tony awards for best score and choreography.
Director Jeff Calhoun, himself a dancer, Gattelli and dance captain Andrew Wilson have instilled the best in the ensemble of leaping, tap-dancing, balletic newsboys. Their moves pop with the precision, grace and swagger befitting the raw rebellion of young men with a cause.
Joey Barreiro is well cast as Jack. He's handsome, charismatic and more than capable of uncovering the layers of his character. Morgan Keene turns in a delightful performance as his romantic counterpart, the reporter Katherine.
And DeMarius R. Copes shone on Tuesday while filling in for another actor as Crutchie, a newsboy with a disability who spends most of the show locked up in an Oliver Twist prison ironically called The Refuge.
We're not talking perfection here, even if there were such a thing. Some songs seem more serviceable than inspirational. The boys respond to the formation of their union, for example, not with exuberance but a sober anthem (The World Will Know), a move only partially redeemed by the purpose that soon shines through for this seeming understatement.
Here or there, a supporting player in the ensemble just barely gets the job done. That would be true of Aisha De Haas as Medda Larkin, the owner of a burlesque joint who has befriended the newsboys. Her song delivery in the first act (That's Rich) feels like a doctor's probe into the ear, the entire character underwritten.
None of those rough surfaces eclipse the fact that this is still a diamond.
A live orchestra reminds the audience, dozens of times, why live orchestras make a difference. A three-tiered, scaffolded set provides a backdrop not only for living quarters of the newsboys but the guts of a newspaper behind the gloss of its finished product.
The result is a three-dimensional immersion in an exuberant story that has never felt more relevant. Newsies builds, layer by layer, an experience ratcheted to successively higher planes over two acts. The conflict is real and about something, the execution extremely well done, and the dancing is just jaw-droppingly good.
I have not enjoyed a musical more in years.
Contact Andrew Meacham at [email protected] or (727) 892-2248. Follow @torch437.