By Oline H. Cogdill
Once upon a time, a strike by underpaid, overworked young people who sold newspapers on the street—“newsies”—could bring a city, businesses, even government to their knees
Ah, the good old days of journalism when such a strike not only was newsworthy but could eventually change the course of working conditions for children and teenagers who, never before, had a voice at the table.
This historical incident called The Newsboy Strike of 1899—look it up on YouTube—is the foundation of a high-energy, enthusiastic and plain old fun production of the musical Disney’s Newsies, running through June 25, closing out Slow Burn Theatre Company’s season at the Broward Center.
Harvey Fierstein (La Cage Aux Folles, Torch Song Trilogy) loosely based his book of Newsies on this reality, with a score by Alan Menken (Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, Sister Act) and lyrics by Jack Feldman. The story was the basis of a 1992 movie, starring Christian Bale, and became a musical, with a Broadway run from March, 2010, to August, 2014, followed by numerous tours.
Forget any other productions of Newsies you may have seen. Slow Burn’s version is the one to see.
Slow Burn’s Newsies barely pauses for a breath as this young cast puts on a rip-roaring, no holds barred production with tight dancing, myriad acrobatic moves, high kicks, back flips and strong singing under the solid direction of Patrick Fitzwater, Michael Ursua’s musical direction and Trent Soyster’s choreography.
Newsies shows that back in 1899 the only way to get the news was buying a newspaper from a street vendor, who were often shouting “Extra! Extra!” about the day’s headlines. There was no tweeting, Facebook, websites or TV promising a 24-hour news cycle, though some of the newspapers came out a couple times a day. Nor were there any newspaper boxes, if those even still exist. It was the vendors, or nothing.
Those who hawked the news were young, poor, usually orphans, often without a permanent place to live, generally boys. If they couldn’t sell the newspapers, they couldn’t buy food. Newsies kicks off with Joseph Pulitzer (Matthew W. Korinko) devising a new scheme to increase the sagging circulation and finances of his New York World newspaper. The newsboys had been paying ahead of time—about 50 cents for “100 papes,” as they called the newspapers. Pulitzer thinks if he demands the newsies pay 60 cents for 100 newspapers they will be forced to sell more. But the kids can’t afford that rate hike. Led by scrappy Jack Kelly (Samuel Cadieux), they have the idea to form a union, and strike until the price comes back to what they can afford.
Pulitzer doesn’t take this pushback lightly and sets out to crush the newsies, who refuse to be crushed. As a result, copies of the New York World stay on the pallets, unread and unsold. Soon newsies for New York City’s other newspapers join the strike. Hearst’s ruthlessness has served him well in business, but he doesn’t have the sheer will to survive as do the newsies. Katherine Plummer (Lea Marinelli), a plucky female journalist who wants to write hard news, takes up their cause, providing a love interest for Jack.
Newsies explores the age-old battles of David vs. Goliath, in this case the “small business” of newsboys, up against being exploited by big business. It also is about how friends become family. These kids have formed strong bonds with each other, supporting each other financially and emotionally, since many of them no longer have biological families.
Although set in 1899, Newsies’ themes are more than relevant today. Just think of the current writers’ strike in which the underpaid and overworked are fighting for better pay.
Ever since it was formed in 2009, Slow Burn has showcased up-and-coming talent, offering these young performers a platform where they could hone their skills. That mission has been evident this year with Slow Burn’s entertaining productions of Mary Poppins, Footloose, and now Newsies. Slow Burn is delivering the talent whom South Florida audiences will be enjoying for years.
Cadieux makes his Jack Kelly a star turn as he takes charge of trying to better the newsies’ plight. He longingly sings of “Santa Fe,” where he longs to live, wanting to be “a big fish in a little pond.” His friendships are backed with sincerity and emotion, especially with his handicapped friend Crutchie (a winning Joel Hunt); brothers Davy (the terrific Mickey White) and Les (also terrific Nate Colton). The growing romance between Jack and Katherine (the fine Marinelli) is believable.
The ever-reliable Korinko, one of Slow Burn’s co-founders, again shows his acting prowess, able to effortlessly range from a nice, everyman such as Mr. Banks in Mary Poppins to a scheming bully as his Hearst in Newsies.
Kareema Khouri’s rich voice is a pleasure that she gifted audiences in Little Shop of Horrors, Mary Poppins, Once on this Island, and now in Newsies as theater owner Medda Larkin, who is sympathetic to the newsies’ cause.
Each newsie, as well as those non-newsies, deserve applause. So, take another bow, Tim Canali, Austin Carroll, Matthew J. Brightbill, Samuel Colina, Jamie Brustein, Matthew Quintero, Jonathan Eisele, Imran Hylton, Christopher Mitchell, Stephen Eisenwasser, Eli Flynn, Kevin Hincape, Jennifer Fraser, Lauren Horgan, Nate Promkul, Chris Alvarez, Ryan Crout, Geoffrey Mergele, Jerel Brown, Michael Cartwright, John Cavaseno, Michael Materdomini.
Newsies’ production values enhance the vibe. André Russell’s production design of vintage New York City set the mood of the cityscape and enhance the scenic design by Kelly Tighe and Clifford Spulock’s lighting design.
Rick Peña’s costume designs reach a new height. These newsies are poor, barely able to afford the basic shirts and pants, but Peña makes each young man’s outfit different, showing their individuality. The newsies’ clothes contrast with those severe businessmen suits made to command authority worn by Pulitzer, his minions and Governor Roosevelt. Peña’s dresses the actresses beautifully—Katherine’s detailed red dress is a lovely standout, showing her station in life and bringing some color and outside perspective to the newsies’ gathering. Medda’s ensembles are equally standouts, from her theater outfit and those of her dancers to her prim, yet sexy, gown when she greets Governor Roosevelt.
Newsies shows the power of the press, or in this case, those who sell those newspapers.
Disney’s Newsies presented by Slow Burn Theatre Company runs through June 25 at the Amaturo Theater, Broward Center For The Performing Arts, 201 SW 5th Ave., Fort Lauderdale. Performances are Wednesday through Saturday at 7:30 p.m., Saturday and Sunday at 1 p.m.; Sunday, June 18, at 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Running time two hours, 30 minutes with one intermission. Tickets start at $49. Call (954) 462-0222 for tickets, at www.browardcenter.org or in person at the Broward Center’s Auto Nation Box Office. Info at www.slowburntheatre.org.