In “Newsies,” a group of unpolished New York newsboys bands together to fight a squeeze from big-time publishers. They form a union and, more important, a surrogate family.
And that family has some awesome dance genes.
The cast’s athletic moves and Christopher Gattelli’s Tony award-winning choreography are the most striking thing about the Disney traveling musical, which opened at the Orpheum Theater on Tuesday night as part of the Omaha Performing Arts Broadway series.
These newsies turn cartwheels. They do astonishing flips — I murmured an involuntary “wow” at the first one. They flawlessly execute some pretty risky leaps.
They do it with wide grins, charm and attitude. It’s in-your-face entertainment. Many scenes occur on a moving set that depicts rooftops, buildings and fire escapes and, at some points, it juts right up to the edge of the stage.
The show, based on a 1992 Disney film, opened on Broadway in 2010. The newsies — a ragtag group of orphans, street kids and poor boys who support their families in 1899 — go on strike to protest the higher cost of newspapers. Their leader is Jack Kelly (Joey Barreiro), who yearns to leave New York for a new start in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Along the way, we learn he’s a talented artist. He paints backdrops for a friend who owns a Bowery theater, Medda Larkin (Aisha de Haas). And he falls in love with Katherine (Morgan Keene), a reporter who sees a good headline in the newsies’ plight. She’s a woman with a secret.
Barreiro’s confidence and big voice make him an engaging leader for the newsies, and Keene can deliver a song with style. They have good onstage chemistry.
“Newsies” has a couple of standout songs — “Seize the Day” and “King of New York,” one in each act. But overall, Alan Menken’s music is unremarkable — for me, it seemed as though it could have been interchangeable with that from any Disney movie. Some of the characters in Harvey Fierstein’s story also weren’t as developed as they could have been.
The dancing, however, blurred those flaws. At one point, the newsies show their disdain for the publishers by tearing up newspapers with their swift-moving feet and tossing the remnants off stage. At another, they tap dance on tables and the floor while playing the spoons. It was loads of fun to watch.
A few other performances were also notable. Zachary Sayle played Kelly’s friend Crutchie, who got sent away to “The Refuge,” a depressing home for wayward youths, and sings as he writes a touching letter to his pal. And Steve Blanchard was deliciously malevolent as Pulitzer. Other standouts included Stephen Michael Langton and 11-year-old Ethan Steiner as brothers who joined the newsies gang.
About 2,250 people turned out for opening night, and they were jazzed. I’m sure many of them were fans of the film, which starred Christian Bale and became a thing for kids who now are in their late 30s. “Newsies” is sure to attract more of the film’s followers and other fans as the week progresses. I guarantee they’ll be dazzled by the dancing.