What’s not to like about “Newsies,” which just opened a run at Pioneer Theatre Company? The Disney hit has a range of music that fills the stage with exuberance and energy — from soulful ballads to rousing song-and-dance numbers, penned by the multiple-award–winning Jack Feldman and Alan Menken — and a lot of snappy dialogue by Harvey “Torch Song Trilogy” Fierstein.
But the real key to its success is the surefire formula of its storyline: The underdog takes on the exploiting establishment and wins.
Interestingly, PTC capitalized last December on the same irresistible formula. With “Oliver,” the underdogs were orphans; here they’re newsboys.
PTC’s production takes advantage of every opportunity this blockbuster musical offers. As Gov. Teddy Roosevelt observes in the celebratory moment when the newsboys triumph, it “keeps its eyes on the stars and its feet on the ground.”
“Newsies” is based on a real New York City newspaper strike in 1899. When Joseph Pulitzer (William Parry), owner of the giant paper The World, raises the price of papers to the newsboys, who are barely eking out a living, they form a union and revolt, led by the brash Jack Kelly (Jonathan Shew) and the fiery idealist Davey (Stephen Michael Langton). All appears lost until Katherine (Nadia Vynn), a sympathetic journalist who publicizes their cause, devises a brilliant plan. Of course, she and Jack also fall in love; score another appealing point for “Newsies.”
The show overflows with rousing song-and-dance numbers, and who better to direct and choreograph them than Karen Azenberg? It’s amazing that she can even move such a large cast around the stage without having them bump into each other, much less keep them in constant motion with such a variety of acrobatic, high-flying dance steps.
In “Seize the Day,” they dance with newspapers; in “King of New York,” they use mops and chairs and tap dance on the bar; in “Brooklyn’s Here,” they burst down the aisles of the theater onto the stage. The dancing alone makes this show worth seeing.
Two ballads in “Newsies” offer more tender moments. In “Santa Fe,” Jack and the feisty, loyal Crutchie (Austin Archer) describe their dream of living far from the city’s squalor, and Shew’s and Vynn’s voices blend beautifully when they celebrate their love in “Something to Believe In.”
Performances in the supporting cast are also strong: Parry as the autocratic, self-serving Pulitzer; Cicily Daniels as the sensual, but motherly, Medda, owner of the Bowery burlesque theater where Jack moonlights painting sets; and Brandon Smith (alternating with Maxwell Rimington) as Les, Davey’s take-charge younger brother. Richie Call has a delightful cameo as the gruff and genial Roosevelt.
George Maxwell has created another imposing set. The giant World newspaper building is intimidating, and the surrounding buildings press in claustrophobically. The large metal set pieces and stairway move flexibly to create smaller, more intimate spaces. Kirk Bookman’s moody lighting features backdrops that change from red to blue to reflect different times of day. David Kay Mickelsen’s blue-collar costumes, especially the newsboys’ signature caps, have an eclectic turn-of-the-century look. Combination musical director and orchestra conductor Tom Griffin’s orchestrations show off the many voices.
In an era when newspapers are disappearing, it’s refreshing to revisit a time when they were an essential part of the culture. “If it’s not in the paper, it never happened,” Pulitzer proclaims. “Newsies” has something to please everyone, and Pioneer Theatre Company enthusiastically sells its wares.
Its rousing underdog story and high-energy dancing make PTC’s “Newsies” jump right off the stage.
When • Reviewed Dec. 1; plays Mondays through Thursdays at 7 p.m. and Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m., with Saturday matinees at 2 p.m., through Dec. 20. Additional 2 p.m. matinee Wednesday, Dec. 20.
Also • ASL interpreters will be featured at the Monday, Dec. 18, show.
Where • Simmons Pioneer Memorial Theatre, 300 S. University St., Salt Lake City
Tickets • $42 to $64; $5 more on the day of the show; half-price for students K–12 on Mondays and Tuesdays; 801-581-6961 or pioneertheatre.org.
Running time • Two and a half hours (including an intermission)
Holiday special • PTC is collecting new books for children in grades K-12 this year for Granite Education Foundation’s Santa Sacks. Bring your donation to the theater.