The passionate, joyful, defiant dancing, singing and skillful story telling in “Disney Newsies, The Broadway Musical,” Gateway’s third seasonal launch, this time at Patchogue Theatre for the Performing Arts, graced the audience Wednesday night with an electrifying debut. Twelve high leaping, somersaulting, twirling, balletic dancer-singing actors played the mostly orphaned newspaper boys, whose sole purpose in life was selling papers to survive the streets at the turn of the 20th century. When New York World publisher Joseph Pulitzer and others raised the price for their bundles from 50 cents to 60 cents to make up for lost sales, the Newsies went on strike. The year was 1899. And newsboys, with a few newsgirls, who numbered several thousand, were the sole engines for circulation, which dropped from 360,000 newspapers a day to 125,000.
Choreographer Chaz Wolcott’s (it’s his eighth “Newsies” show, between acting, directing and choreographing the Broadway hit) got the blessing from “Newsies” original choreographer Chris Gattelli for his restaging.
“It’s one of the most difficult and explosive shows in dance, Broadway has ever seen. They’re tap dancing, leaping, dancing on newspapers (papers get thrown out to the audience) to signify the strike,” Wolcott told the Advance. “It’s also an homage to Gene Kelly in the 1950 movie “Summer Stock.” (Icon Kelly dances on newspaper.)
The “Newsies” led by Jack Kelly (Alex Prakken) are a ragtag bunch, with their caps, suspenders, knickers and haphazard appearance, known for toughness and street smarts but also a fierce, touching loyalty to each other. Prakken embodies the anger, swagger and physicality of Kelly as the leader, who yearns for a bigger life; his love interest is Katherine Plumber (Molly Rushing), the New York Sun reporter, tired of writing for the society pages who is drawn to the issue. And to Jack. Their sparring is snappy and frequent and begins with: “My name is Jack Kelly,” says a smitten Jack. “Is that what they say on your rap sheet,” retorts Katherine. Rushing gives a feisty, singing, dancing sparkle to this mostly all-male club.
Crutchie (Andrew Steven Purdy) plays Jack’s best friend, the orphan with an injured leg fearful of being thrown in The Refuge by warden creepy Snyder (a deliciously villianous Brian Veitch). His sweet vulnerability, especially in “Letter from the Refuge” is a sad, resigned plea.
“I bet if your father had a union, you wouldn’t be selling papers,” Jack tells a bookish Davey (Logan Marks) who joins the Newsies tentatively. Marks pushes his character, and evolves into a strong union advocate. His younger brother Les (Brendyn Molnar in this performance – he was in The Gateway’s “Sound of Music”) is a fearless, funny little kid with moxie from the start.
“Seize the Day” is the rousing dance scene with upraised fists that’s the biggest, Wolcott pointed out. “It’s a five minute dance when the Newsies go on strike,” he said. “It’s particularly strong and scrappy. From that, the strike lands on the front page of the newspapers. They celebrate and tap dance all over the deli where they usually gather, on tables, chairs, dance with brooms and spoons.”
Medda Larkin (Aurelia Williams), the successful theater owner, vaudeville star and sympathetic friend of Jack’s, who provides his lodging sanctuary, struts and sings with delightful vigor and oomph, making us laugh in “That’s Rich.” Gateway regular Steve Brady as Gov. Theodore Roosevelt gets in his pointed word jabs to rival Joseph Pulitzer (David Engel). Engel nails his pompous, dismissive publisher’s character right on: you want to really pop him one.
There are some good surprises in the show but no spoiler alerts here and while Disney elaborated here and there, the story’s basics stayed true.
The set combines scaffolds with cinematic projections of downtown Manhattan, its bridges as well as newspaper headlines and Pulitzer’s office, the Newsies hangout and Medda’s theater. Frequent Gateway director Larry Rabin headed this one. Twenty-seven actors make up the entire cast. There are eight in the orchestra who expertly handle the rousing songs.
Prakken’s Jack drives the show and his amazing intensity, in singing and dancing are riveting, but so are the Newsies with their energetic slides, flips and high jumps; all in pretty much every scene. It’s an incredible physical effort.
“The dancers also have to tell an incredible story,” Wolcott said. A compromise was made at the end of the two-week strike between Pulitzer and the Newsies, who agreed to disband the union. But they opened the door to social reforms.
“The scene in the show where they have a rally, the Newsies expanded it to include sweat shop kids,” he said. “The real strike led to the Child Labor movement.”
Sidebar: The Gateway production of “Disney Newsies The Broadway Musical” is playing at Patchogue Theatre for the Performing Arts to Sept. 11. Proof of vaccination is required as are masks during performance.
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