It would take a pretty good theater to pull off "Newsies," the live action musical film that came out in 1992, when musicals were so desperately uncool that even Disney couldn’t pull one off. The film, loosely based on the 1899 newsboys’ strike, flopped on release but later became a cult classic — and isn’t a cult Disney movie deliciously ironic? The film was adapted into a play that hit Broadway in 2012 and is currently on stage at Village Theatre.
In both the film and stage versions, charismatic newsboy Jack Kelly pairs up with the brainy Davey and his kid brother Les to form a union. Together, these street kids of New York challenge media industry kingpins and strike a blow for workers' rights.
Bottom line: Village Theatre's "Newsies The Broadway Musical" entertains with big choruses and dramatic dancing while also teaching kids about the power of solidarity with a story about an early moment in U.S. labor history.
Even though I live 10 minutes from Seattle Center’s collection of theaters, I gladly drove to Issaquah to see "Newsies" open at Village Theatre. Their ticket prices are higher than other regional theaters, but with dual locations in Issaquah and Everett, Village is the largest fully producing theater in Washington. Their productions easily match the quality of nationally touring shows. All of their sets are designed and built locally, and every performance is accompanied by a live orchestra. Bonus: Their theaters are small enough that even back row seats are close to the stage. I am always impressed by the outsized talent and professionalism they fit into an intimate little theater on Front Street.
On the other hand, I don’t actually like Alan Menken’s music ("The Little Mermaid," "Aladdin," "Newsies"). In fact, the whole Broadway style of awkwardly phrased, sentimental lyrics sung by a heartfelt tenor bores me. Too often, glitzy Broadway numbers about real-world issues just come off as flippant, and that was part of the problem with the original film.
It helps that Village’s cast for "Newsies" is made up of really good voices. You can hear their individual talent in the solos, and like a metaphor for the story itself, they come together powerfully in the choruses. With a mostly male cast, "Newsies" breaks up the Broadway formula with the addition of battle marches like “The World Will Know” and “Once and for All” that are thrillingly intense and lend some of the gravitas necessary for the gritty subject matter.
The male chorus is great for conveying righteous anger, but strengthening the few female characters for the adaptation was a significant — and welcome — change from the movie. Davey’s passive sister and the Sun reporter were combined in the new character Katherine, a plucky girl reporter trying to get her big break with a hard news story about the newsboy strike. Taylor Niemeyer owns the role, coming across with much more depth than a standard Disney heroine. Especially in “Watch What Happens” her voice is rich and expressive — worthy of Broadway.
The nightclub owner Medda Larkin (Marlette Buchanan) is much more spirited than the film version. She speaks and sings in double entendre and helps the newsies out with more than just a gathering space. It’s her, um, access to the governor that finally puts the pressure on Pulitzer. "Newsies" still doesn’t pass the Bechdel test, but building up the female characters makes for a more balanced and believable story than the film.
One of the reasons the film made it to cult status despite its flaws, was its star, Christian Bale. My crush on Bale started with "Empire of the Sun" and lasted all the way to "American Psycho." It was hard for me to imagine anyone else in a role that he played. Fortunately, Joey Barreiro – who also played protagonist Jack Kelly in the national tour – is a better singer and a better dancer than Bale.
The dancing is the best thing about Newsies. Katy Tabb’s choreography (she was also responsible for the amazing dance in Village Theatre’s "Billy Elliot") really shines a light on the abilities of the ensemble of male dancers, many of whom hold degrees in dance and have performed with professional ballet companies. Even when they are singing, the cast performs incredibly athletic dance, climbing and jumping all over the set with giant leaps and high kicks. They incorporate gymnastics as often as formal dance steps.
My kids were a little disappointed to see adults playing the roles of kids, but dance like this just wouldn’t be possible with younger performers. The one child on stage, Davey’s little brother Les, was played with scene-stealing authenticity by eighth-grader Guthrie Greenwood Bettinger, who already has an impressive professional resume, including a lead role in "The Secret Garden" at The 5th Avenue Theater. My daughters decided he made up for having a muscular adult in the role of their beloved shrimpy-but-intimidating Brooklyner Spot. Having a middle schooler in a central role surrounded by adults helped maintain the illusion of a 9-year-old among teenagers.
It’s important that "Newsies" is about kids, not just because kids like stories about themselves, but because it’s easy for us today to forget the role children played in American labor history. When they form the newsie union, Jack Kelly reminds Davey, “If your dad had a union, you’d still be in school.” In 1992, a story about children taking on social challenges adults couldn’t face seemed to come from another world, but the news today is a little darker. When the headlines are so horrifying that activists have started advising “self-care,” the message of "Newsies" is especially valuable.
There was a time in American history when things were worse than now, when child labor was not just considered normal but exploiting child workers was considered good business. Who could be less powerful than homeless children? But in real life, those children organized and won their rights from powers every bit as corrupt as those we face today. Self-care isn’t about forgetting our problems; it’s about finding the energy to face them again and again. Dressed up in high energy choruses and dramatic dance, "Newsies" is both education and self-care. It introduces kids to a piece of labor history, teaching them about the collective strength of average people and it restores parents’ energy to go out and demonstrate that power in real life.
Parents should know
Newsies deals with historically factual situations of child neglect and abuse, but maintains an upbeat tone. Fight choreography won the approval of my martial arts-focused family, and we loved that Davey looks out for his little brother Les during the brawl. Village Theatre has provided a parents’ guide with details about images of violence, sexuality, language and other topics of concern to parents to help you decide if this production is appropriate for your family.
Tips for parents
- Running time is two hours and 15 minutes plus a 15-minute intermission.
- The Issaquah theater has a soundproof family room for families who want to bring children under four or older children who have a hard time remaining quiet during performances.
- Concessions are available in the lobby before the show and during intermission; no food is allowed in the theater.
- It’s helpful to familiarize kids with the story beforehand, since the large cast and quick pacing can make it hard for kids (especially younger kids) to follow.
- It’s also helpful for kids to be familiar with the story of David and Goliath, which is frequently referenced throughout the play.
If you go...
When: Through Dec. 31 in Issaquah; Jan. 5–28, 2018 in Everett
Where: Francis J. Gaudette Theatre, 303 Front St. N., Issaquah and Everett Performing Arts Center, 2710 Wetmore Ave., Everett