As the Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera continues its summer of excellence, it turned to yet another Disney production, the second such this year (The Little Mermaid) at the Benedum Center. But where Mermaid swam with bubbly tunes over and under the sea, Newsies tackled a more serious matter, the newspaper boys’ strike of 1899 in New York City and laced it with powerful, athletic choreography.
While all Disney productions have messages embedded within them, this production spotlights the problems of child labor during the late 19th century. In a way it’s the flip side of Annie, with its perky, determined cast of girls.
While Newsies doesn’t have the familiarity of Annie, its cast of boys sets it apart as well, although the various roles can be played by young adults who just happen to look like teenagers. That means the choreography can be more complicated and physical.
And it is. The boys have numerous show stopping routines courtesy of director/choreographer Richard Hines (who has a connection to the original Broadway musical). It exploded with Carrying the Banner, spiked by strong jazz moves, and included King of New York, an electrifying tap routine (although you had to wonder where the Newsies got their shiny new shoes). You could tell the audience was waiting for the Newsies to conquer the stage each time as they swaggered up and down the fire escapes in the urban setting.
They are led by a charismatic Jack Kelly, played by Joey Barreiro, who recently finished the national tour (and one of several actors that made the jump to CLO). He’s an actor who knows the value of stillness, one of those people who light up a room (or a theater) with his presence. He also knew how to pace himself, saving his full-throated voice for a forceful rendition of Santa Fe at the end of the first act. Best friend Crutchie (a touching Daniel Quadrino) set the stage when he performed the song as a duet with Jack at the top of the show.
Jack’s love interest, Katherine Plumber (Beth Stafford Laird) had an equally riveting moment in Watch What Happens and could hold her own, much like a budding feminist, with the guys. The production skimmed over shards of history with Joseph Pulitzer (a suitably authoritative Edward Watts) and Governor Teddie Roosevelt (CLO stalwart Gavan Pamer), less so with Bower burlesque hall owner Medda Larkin (a robust Patricia Phillips).
So maybe adults now deliver the “papes” and, on closer inspection, this musical a piece of revisionist history. But at its heart, Newsies is about persistence and courage, qualities that we need even today and it delivers.