While current industrial action makes this story of striking newspaper boys in 1899 New York strangely topical, the show is a traditional affair. Based on the 1992 Disney film, the standard is high and its success in the States is understandable. If Harvey Fierstein’s book and Jack Feldman’s lyrics are disappointingly simplistic, Alan Menken’s score is forceful and director Matt Cole’s choreography strong. This is a family show with wide appeal.
Newsies is very ‘Broadway’, which makes this long-awaited UK premier in Wembley a little odd. The theatre itself is a barn of a place lacking atmosphere, but it suits the dance heavy piece in terms of spaciousness. A lot of effort is made to get the cast running around the cavernous hall. Going amongst the crowd is a small part of the energy expanded – there’s a lot of gymnastics that cannot fail to impress.
Do all the somersaults and splits get a little boring? There really are a lot of them. That said, the tap-dancing number that opens the second act, along with swinging from the lights, is superb. Likewise, the rousing score is effective… but a touch monotone. This is a long show – they want you to get your money’s worth, and succeed with that. The question is whether the time could be better spent on other things? Yes, you’ve guessed it, the characters in Newsies are paper thin.
The notable exception is Jack, who leads the show and the union that takes action against newspaper baron Joseph Pulitzer. It’s a great role for Michael Ahomka-Lindsay, who powers the whole production with a great voice and commanding presence. But Jack’s sidekicks, Crutchie and Davey (he’s the brains) are horribly slim: performers, Matthew Duckett and Ryan Kopel, do their best but the roles are uncomfortably one-dimensional. The ensemble nods at other characters but there’s little besides hearing lots of names. And everyone is hampered by a New Yeurk accent.
The grown-ups are baddies (and poor villains at that, despite Cameron Blakely’s spirited performance) or underused (Moya Angela’s Medda needs to be on the stage more). A brief appearance by Theodore Roosevelt is the show’s only surprise – who would have thought a politician would save the day? But the biggest disappointment is the plucky female reporter who, sigh, becomes Jack’s love interest. Bronté Barbé gives the role a good shot but wastes her big number (which is one of the more interesting) and, despite a big voice, ends up a small character.
Newsies is fantastically naive. And very sentimental. Think Les Mis with optimism. None of this is bad, but the show does takes itself very seriously. The rousing score fits with this. But falling for the happy ending is a tough sell. Praising the potential of youth is hardly a scoop, and achievements come too easy in the swift story, so they fail to teach much. This may sound like a grumpy appraisal but, for all the scale here (of venue, cast, energy and the sound), the show is slight. The headlines are good, but the story itself isn’t worthy of many column inches.
Until 16 April 2023
Photo by Johan Persson