Extra, Extra, Read All About It: Surflight’s ‘Newsies’ Is Striking!

Aug 02, 2017
Photo by: Ryan Morrill

Disney has been a major force in musical theater since “Beauty and the Beast” opened on Broadway on April 18, 1994.

The company has since built quite the list of hit shows on the Great White Way: “The Lion King,” “The Little Mermaid,” “Aladdin” and “Mary Poppins.”

But Disney Theatrical Productions wasn’t really taking chances with those shows, was it? They had all been hit Disney movies and were sure to appeal to families and tourists.

On the other hand, “Newsies,” the show currently playing at Beach Haven’s Surflight Theatre, was somewhat of a gamble.

The show was based on a 1992 Disney film that had bombed at the box office, costing $15 million to make and recouping only $2.8 million. It bombed with the critics as well, with 22 of 36 professional reviews collected on Rotten Tomatoes saying it was rotten (as opposed to fresh), leaving it with a score of 39 out of 100. Indeed, the flick was nominated for five Golden Raspberry Awards, including Worst Picture!

But over the years, “Newsies” the movie developed a cult following. Indeed, 88 percent of audience reviewers on Rotten Tomatoes now say they liked it.

So Disney decided to bring in Harvey Fierstein to rework the book and had composer Alan Menken and lyricist Jack Feldman add some new songs and subtract some old ones. The show premiered at New Jersey’s very own Paper Mill Playhouse in September 2011 and earned good reviews.

After further reworking, it opened on Broadway on March 29, 2012. Surely all involved must have been holding their collective breath waiting for editorial thumbs up or thumbs down. A sign that Disney hadn’t totally committed to “Newsies” is that it opened for a limited engagement.

Well, the show passed muster with the press, was nominated for eight Tony Awards including Best Musical, won two (Best Choreography and Best Original Score) and went on to post 1,005 performances. Not bad for a limited engagement!

Critics raved about the show’s dancers. “As choreographed by Christopher Gattelli,” wrote Ben Brantley for The New York Times, “they keep coming at us in full-speed-ahead phalanxes, fortified by every step in a Broadway-by-the-numbers dance book. There are back flips, cartwheels, somersaults and kick lines galore, not to mention enough pirouettes to fill a whole season of ‘Swan Lake.’”

They also loved the show’s star, Jeremy Jordan. “Jordan, who starred in the flop ‘Bonnie and Clyde’ earlier this season, proves himself yet again to be a genuine matinee idol as Jack,” wrote Matt Windman from AM NY. “His theatrical performance bursts with an aggressive spirit and sincere adolescent emotion.”

I can’t find better words to describe Paula Hammons Sloan’s choreography of Surflight’s “Newsies,” her dancers, and the star of this production, Logan Farine. Eerily, Farine, who already wooed and wowed Surflight fans earlier this summer as Ren in “Footloose,” broke out in this area in 2014 when he starred in an Ocean Professional Theatre Company (headed by former and current Surflight producing artistic director Steve Steiner) production of “Bonnie and Clyde” in Barnegat.

Folks with kids were more than likely familiar with the storylines of the Disney stage productions adapted from the studio’s animated features before they visited a theater to see the shows – they had probably seen the DVD of “Beauty and the Beast” a dozen times. But unless you’re one of those aforementioned cult followers of the movie you won’t be familiar with the storyline of “Newsies.”

It is based on a true story. New York’s ragamuffin army of orphaned and runaway newsboys who hawked the city’s newspapers on the streets went on strike in 1899 when Joseph Pulitzer of Pulitzer Prize fame and William Randolph Hearst, the owners of NYC’s best-selling “papes,” raised the price they charged the boys (and girls) for 100 papers from 50 cents to 60 cents. Considering that papers were sold to the public at a penny a piece that would amount to a huge pay cut for the newsies. So they went on strike and, amazingly, won, or at least earned a compromise that they could sell back unsold copies to the publishers.

Of course, like most movies and plays based on true stories, “Newsies” puffed up the plot and changed details. The actual strike was led by “Kid Blink,” so named because he was blind in one eye. In “Newsies” the hero is Jack Kelly (Farine). He’s assisted by Davey (Daniel Neale) and his little brother Les (an obviously experienced-beyond-his-tender-years Benjamin Barham-Weise), as well as by a sympathetic vaudeville house owner, Medda Larkin (a power-voiced Morgan Rucker). By the way, Kid Blink’s infirmity was switched and handed off to another character, the club-footed Crutchie (a charismatic Sammy Olmedo).

OK, a name-change here, a disability trade there, what’s the big deal? Well, an improbable love story was added (hey, this is musical theater). Jack is helped by – and falls in love with – a young reporter, Katherine Plumber (a wonderfully cast Meggan Herod). It turns out her real name is Katherine Pulitzer, the publisher’s (Ricky Pope) daughter (once again, this is musical theater).

In the show, all of New York’s many other newspapers refuse to publish stories about the strike so Katherine brings the newsies into the bowels of her father’s printing shop where they use an ancient press to produce their own broadsheets to publicize their plight. In reality, a competing publisher was more than happy to run stories about the strike, the better to make Pulitzer and Hearst look like villains. And I can find no proof that Gov. Theodore Roosevelt (David Discenza) intervened in the actual strike, as he does in the show.

Still, we’ll forgive Fierstein for the liberties he took with the truth. After all, the von Trapp family of “The Sound of Music” fame left Austria for the beginning of its long trip to the U.S. on a train, not climbing over the Alps with all of their possessions on their backs.

“Newsies” is, as Katherine quickly saw, a great David versus Goliath tale. That element of the real strike remains and quickly engages the audience. It is sort of a metaphor for the Surflight story, back from a two-year, bankruptcy-dug grave. This fine production will surely help Surflight stay above ground.

— Rick Mellerup



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