Carrying the banner call of Strike!, Alan Menken and Jack Feldman’s Newsies becomes the call to action that we need to hear. An absolutely electrifying show to watch, this revitalised musical is an example of the very best of musical theatre.
Newsies is timeless, and it will remain one of the most impressive feats of art for years to come
In response to Joseph Pulitzer (Cameron Blakely) increasing the price of newspapers, the newsies go on strike led by Jack Kelly (Michael Ahomka-Lindsay), and Davey (Ryan Kopel) in order to protest their working conditions. Aided by Katherine Plumber (Bronté Barbé) they show the impact that organisation and unions can have, and what happens when younger generations fight for their place at the table. Newsies is more than it appears on the surface, more than the impressive score and the physical dexterity of its choreography; it rises above any particular time period, and speaks to consistencies and experiences across generations, and for that it will always remain relevant.
Matt Cole’s direction spells the issues of the show out for us; this is a story of the danger of monopolies, the importance of organisation and the power of the many against the interests of the few. Cole makes this show a protest in of itself, and a clarion call for all who wish to fight against the injustices they see in their world. The choreography is elegant, and pushes the cast’s abilities to create show-stopping numbers (quite literally twice during Seize the Day) where we cannot help but be amazed by the cast’s dancing and stamina. At times it is used to emphasise phrases and orchestral builds in the music, like the continuous pirouettes during the phrase ‘one for all and all for one’, that appeared to mimic the waves in the vocal line.
The score itself makes the musical what it is. Feldman’s lyrics churn over in your mind for days after, incredibly memorable in the little turns of phrase that he adopts. There’s a paradox that occurs, where the simplicity of the words meets the longevity and commonality of the emotions and struggle that they encapsulate, which when added to Menken’s score creates musical moments that possess so much majesty that you have to stop, savour and then process in order to enjoy it fully. Menken is by far one of the kindest composers of our time, both to performers and audiences. For the former, the tune is carried by the orchestra (in Newsies it is a trumpet’s job to act almost like a military bugle which stands out and soars above the rest of the orchestrations). For the latter, we have the joy of hearing extremely satisfying and full-bodied harmonies that leave shivers down our spines. Menken’s ability to capture the mood in the moment is extraordinary, moving from almost hopeful, to more militant to playful and defiant at the drop of a hat (or newsies bag).
The majesty of this production of Newsies is amplified by its immersive nature; the setting becomes the streets of New York in a way that you would only find in the real city itself. Morgan Large’s set is incredibly imposing and industrial, which is exemplified in the fire escape that takes centre stage, looming above every scene and that looks so grim that you can’t help imaging the rust and the slickness created by the exposure to the elements that would normally come with it. Large deserves credit for authenticity, for if you have to choose one architectural element to represent New York, a fire escape would probably be it. Natalie Pryce’s costume reflects each character extremely well, adding to their roles and personalities. On the one hand, all the newsies are dressed in drab shades - except for the revolutionary leader Jack who has a red shirt (a great use of the colour associations) - at first glance, creating a uniformity when they come together, unless you look closely and spot the different patterns and styles that they wear. Katherine’s costume provides the most details about her character; an understated yet formal outfit that plays around with gender norms down to its blue colour, turning the binary upside down to suggest that she doesn’t conform to what is expected of women during this time period. It’s these clever thought-provoking details that add layer upon layer of meaning to this musical, contributing to its cultural importance.
Where to start with the cast, their performance is beyond words, simply for the sheer joy that watching them perform brings. The fact that we are surrounded on all sides by the cast, have them sing in our face and watch them run around the theatre, adds a sense of urgency, but also acts like a time machine taking us back to the events surrounding the actual newsie strikes in 1899, as if we are there ourselves. Each musical number takes on new heights, as if they set a challenge to outdo their performance in the previous song. Katherine is an ever-present figure on the stage, watching from the shadows, which initially makes her seem passive, but Barbé’s performance shows that she’s anything but. Words like headstrong or ambitious could be used to encapsulate her performance, but that would be an oversimplificaiton, as we see in songs like Watch What Happens. Barbé infuses so much hope, wonder and sheer determination in everything she does that she makes Katherine more than just a potential love-interest watching from the sidelines. Ahomka-Lindsay manages to give Jack Kelly new life, playing to the youthful mischievousness and goodness of the character. There is an emphasis on the character’s youthfulness in his interpretation; the more extreme emotions of anger and sadness come off more as petulance, as Ahomka-Lindsay does not have a particular edge about him. Ahomka-Lindsay has a very clear, emotive tenor, and the wistfulness in each note of Santa Fe is not lost on us, in fact it is such a pleading, cry for help that it speaks to our own struggles and views on the world. He is voicing our own railings, and for that we cannot help but reach out to him.
Newsies is timeless, and it will remain one of the most impressive feats of art for years to come. Seize the day and head over to the Troubadour Theatre, for Newsies is the event of the year and mandatory viewing for all.