The year is 1899, and the place is New York City. A trolley strike is making daily headlines and "newsies" — newsboys — are selling the papers in the streets. The newsies wish for more exciting headlines (bloody photos and shocking stories are what sells). But when they stumble upon their own labor dispute — publishers suddenly charge newsies more, thereby cutting into the boys' already-slim earnings — it doesn't take long for them to plan their own strike. Their leader is a charismatic newsie named Jack Kelly, equal parts bravado, muscles and dark Italian looks.
The next step is obvious: Because this is the Broadway smash-hit musical Newsies, the boys break into wild, furious song and dance. Fifteen young men, clad in vests, knickers and caps, soar, sing and stamp up, down, and all over the three-story set and stage. They backflip, do midair splits, pirouette and stomp on newspapers, while belting out a labor anthem called "Seize the Day" in perfect harmony.
Disney's Newsies — which opened last night and which plays at the Paramount Theatre through Sunday, May 1 — would be worth seeing for the song-and-dance numbers alone: A crew of teen boys singing and handspringing on stage in 19th century working-boy costumes — what's not to love? Add in the historical underdog story (with kids as the heroes), the awesome gritty-industrial three-story set, cool special effects and terrific acting, and it's an all-around winner.
Older kids will especially appreciate that the musical was based on real-life events, the Newsboy Strike of 1899, where teenage newsboys — many of whom were orphans and runaways — banded together and rallied newsboys from across the city to strike against the publisher's price raise. The strike, which lasted two weeks and resulted in a compromise, marked one of the first times that young workers organized and won. The story was chronicled in a book called Children of the City, by David Nasaw, turned into a Disney movie musical in 1992, and then produced as a Broadway musical by composer Alan Menken and lyricist Jack Feldman.
As you might expect, the singing and acting is top-notch all-around, with especial kudos to Joe Barreiro as Jack Kelly, Broadway superstar Steve Blanchard as a satisfyingly evil publisher Joseph Pulitzer and Stephen Michael Langton as Davey, a timid newbie learning the newsie ropes (along with with his younger brother Les), who evolves to become a leader in the strike.
Beyond "Seize the Day," the pantheon of memorable musical numbers include "King of New York," showcasing newsies tap-dancing and juggling brooms and spoons; the moving "Santa Fe," where Jack sings of his dreams to move west; and the funny, slapsticky "Watch What Happens," where young reporter Katherine (Morgan Keene), who is determined to make the newsies' strike front-page news, confronts the ultimate case of writer's block on her vintage typewriter.
Not surprisingly, the lion's share of parts are played by boys and men; however, there are two strong female characters, including Katherine, a young reporter who first wrote about the newsboy strike; and Medda Larkin (Aisha de Haas), a flamboyant theater owner (and fantastic vocalist) who served as a mentor of sorts for Jack.
My only quibble with the production is the obligatory romance between Katherine and Jack. To my mind, Newsies already is a love story without the chase and kiss — a love story of young friendship, camaraderie and scrappy victory.
Parents should know
There is nothing objectionable in the musical, save, perhaps, a couple of sweet (and long) kisses between Jack and love interest Katherine. Newsies and newspaper employees also engage in some mild stage fighting.
That said, the show seems a bitter fit for older kids (ages 7 or 8 and up) because of the labor politics backstory. To prep kids, you can share some backround on the story, and show them the movie-musical version of Newsies, recommended for ages 9 and older by CommonSense Media. Another resource is Calling Extra, a young-adult historical novel about New York City in 1899, including the newsboy strike.
The play could be fodder for all sorts of interesting conversations about equal rights, the Labor movement, standing up for others, feminism and more. Find full details about the musical on this study guide.
If you go ...
Where: Paramount Theatre, Seattle
When: Through Sunday, May 1, 2016
Length: 2 hours and 6 minutes, plus a 20-minute intermission
Tickets: Starting at $30; buy tickets here