American society has changed a lot since 1899. That’s one of the history lessons imparted by the consistently entertaining production of “Newsies” at Toby's Dinner Theatre.
This musical’s plot takes us back to the long-distant era when Joseph Pulitzer and other publishers of high-circulation newspapers employed newsboys to sell papers in the street. The newsboys only made a small profit from these thousands of ink-stained transactions. When Pulitzer threatened to make their profit even smaller, the scrappy New York City newsboys populating “Newsies” formed a union. Those were the days!
The historical underpinnings for “Newsies” definitely give it nostalgia value. It’s fun watching the show’s assortment of colorful characters. The newsboys are never short on street-smart attitude, and their suitably assertive New York accent means that “oyster” will be pronounced “erster.” Authority figures such as Pulitzer look like they just stepped out of a political cartoon lampooning capitalism. Then-Governor Theodore Roosevelt makes a swaggering appearance. And where the female half of the population is concerned, there are a couple of so-called Bowery Beauties adding to the festive urban environment.
If the musical’s subject matter definitely makes it a natural for the full-scale Broadway treatment, the musical’s immediate source is a bit surprising. When Disney released the movie musical “Newsies” in 1992, critics were not charmed and audiences largely stayed away. Indeed, the movie seemed most notable for providing an early role for Christian Bale.
The movie version did gain a cult following, however, and eventually resulted in the stage version featuring music by Alan Menken, lyrics by Jack Feldman, and book by Harvey Fierstein. These theater veterans definitely improved upon the original movie. “Newsies” opened on Broadway in 2012 and did well there, and a subsequent road tour included a stop at Baltimore’s Hippodrome Theatre in 2014.
The Toby’s production co-directed by Toby Orenstein and Mark Minnick keeps the New Yawk-accented action flowing through numerous scene changes. These are facilitated by having most of the action transpire on metal platforms stationed around the theater space. Some of these platforms are fixed, while others are pushed around into various configurations. It’s an energetic staging for newsboys who seemingly never stand still.
In that regard, much of the credit also goes to the choreographer of the Toby’s production, Ilona Kessell, who ensures that the constant movement has the tight coordination we expect from a Broadway musical. Indeed, there are some tap dance-driven numbers that really put the action into this labor action. Likewise, music director Ross Scott Rawlings quickly pushes the score from one brief scene to the next.
The large cast is clearly having fun as they put on the costumes and accents of that ancient New York era. If some of the performances are rather broad, well, that’s easy to justify in terms of characters who are not shy about voicing their opinions, getting into fights, and otherwise embodying a noisy democracy of the streets.
Leading the union-organizing efforts is Jack Kelly, who is played by Matt Hirsh with enjoyably blustery self-confidence. This actor provides the spark for the newsboy ensemble as it launches into such stage-filling musical numbers as “Carrying the Banner,” “The World Will Know” and “Seize the Day.” As those song titles indicate, this musical is all about self-assertion.
Although the collective effort at the heart of “Newsies” does not exactly encourage rich character development for all of the characters, Jack’s lively personality is on ample display; and his romantic connection to a young woman named Katherine Plumber (MaryKate Brouillet) is developed with the comfortable familiarity of a traditional Broadway musical. When Hirsh and Brouillet share a rooftop at night for the duet “Something to Believe In,” you’ll know that love is enough to conquer any labor-management dispute.
Others in the big cast who make an impression include Kadejah One as Medda Larkin, Tyler Smallwood (at the reviewed performance) as Les, Taylor Witt as Crutchie, Gregory Banks as Specs, and Russell Sunday as Joseph Pulitzer.
Although both the story and the score in “Newsies” have overly predictable qualities, the show is so good-natured and fast-moving that any reservations are knocked aside by those tap-dancing newsboys.
“Newsies” runs through June 10 at Toby’s Dinner Theatre, 5900 Symphony Woods Road in Columbia. Call 410-730-8311 or go to tobysdinnertheatre.com