Skylight’s “Newsies” Tries Hard But Just Doesn’t Deliver

The cast of Newsies at Skylight Music Theatre

“The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb,
The leopard shall lie down with the young goat,
The calf and the young lion and the fatling together;
And a little child shall lead them.” – Isaiah 11:6

The verse above sounds a lot like the world today when you see young people everywhere trying to engage with life and lead us adults to a better place. 

Greta Thunberg, the climate change girl, Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani Nobel Peace Prize winner, all those students from Parkland High School demanding tighter control of guns.

You would think that a musical about children rebelling against the grown ups and trying to force a new world order would passionately resonate with an audience.

Unfortunately the production of “Newsies” that opened over the weekend at Skylight Music Theatre is a corny repetitive show that seems to take itself too seriously.

Under the direction of Molly Rhode – whose work on and off stages I have loved and admired – this Newsies is less about a changing of the guard and more about “see how they run.”

The story, based on a 1992 Disney movie, is simple.

The street urchins who deliver newspapers survive in a kind of secret band of brothers and sisters slaving for the New York City barons, including Joseph Pulitzer.

The publishers announce a slight increase in the price of the papers – which also means an increase in costs for for the children.

Led by the charismatic bad boy Jack Kelly, (Marco Tzunux) the kids moan, groan and finally grip their reality and decide to form a union and go on strike. The play is based on an actual 1899 strike by newsboys, a two-week stoppage that ended when a compromise was reached.

The decades old Disney film was not well received but found a life as a small cult favorite and was revived as the stage production in 2011. It was nominated for a delivery bag full of Tony awards and won two, for choreography and original score.

Three years ago a national tour played at the Marcus Center. That production was full of verve and joy. Oh, they had urchins but those urchins got a kick out of life. They were full of characters who were distinct and developed.

The Skylight production is devoid of any joy as well as almost totally devoid of a commitment that acting is a part of a performance on stage. 

There is little effort made to create believable characters but a lot of embracing stereotypes – a belligerent Joseph Pulitzer, fawning aides, greedy supervisors, evil jailers, big-hearted women of ill-repute and noble (against all odds) boys. 

Because there is little acting, what we are left with is a series of musical numbers that reminded me of nothing so much as a review of talent. It’s as if Ed Sullivan might come out to introduce each act since there was no real thread to pull things together. 

Music is expected to serve the story in a musical, but in this case there was a story that was in service of the dancing and singing.

A typical display of variety show talent overkill came when, in one number,  we had a tap dancer, followed by three tap dancers, then three more tap dancers, then a whole slew of tap dancers, then a small group of tap dancers and finally a stage full of tap dancers and guys doing flips and cartwheels. Enough already.

The most memorable scenes from “Les Miserables is the one where the group of rebels charge with fists raised singing the fierce “Do You Hear the People Sing.” In Newsies we get songs with titles like “The World Will Know,” “Seize the Day” and Once and For All.” 

The creative team on this one just took the whole “this sure is relevant today” thing way too seriously. We are supposed to enjoy or be moved by musical theater, not expected jusst to sit back and watch kids dance.

The cast is not without talent and Ms. Rhode has done an admirable job getting a bunch of local kids to impersonate professional performers. But a lot of the urchin newsies look more like almost-adult newsies and accomplished actors like Lee Palmer, Rachel Zientek and Chase Stoeger suffer along with this irregularly spaced effort.

This show needed to give us something to care about but it couldn’t move from the comic section to the front page. 

Janet Maslin was the highly respected film critic of the New York Times and reviewed the film, and what she wrote 25 years agocould easily apply to the Skylight Production. 

“The real trouble lies in its joyless, pointless execution. It’s a tedious story which will seem dull to children and badly contrived to their parents.”

Cast: Jack Kelly, Marco Tzunux; Katherine Plumber, Rachael Zientek; Crutchie, Jordan Arrasmith; Davey, Nicholas Parrott; Les, Abram Nelson/Edward Owczarski; Joseph Pulitzer, Lee Palmer; Medda Larkin, Natalie Harris; Wiesel/Mayor, Kevin James Sievert; Oscar Delancey/Stage Manager, Shawn Holmes; Morris Delancey/Teddy Roosevelt, Christopher Elst; Snyder/Jacobi/Nunzio, Chase Stoeger; Race/Bunsen/Darcy, Austin Ryan Hunt; Finch/Sietz/Bill, Jonathan Turner; Hannah/Bowery Beauty/Nun, Stephanie Staszak; Spot Coonlan/Bowery Beauty/Newsie, Jamie Mercado; Albert, Joseph Davila; Specs, Kamani Graham; Henry, Matthew Peterson; Romeo, Keleous Lange; Elmer, Nathan Kabara; Buttons, Nolan Van Haren; Tommy Boy, Tikvah Schlissel; Jojo, Francis Faye; Ensemble, Eloise Field; Max Larson, Michael Loomans, Lily Miller, Alicia Rivera, Paisley Schroeder. 

Production credits; Director, Molly Rhode; Music Director, Christie Chiles Twillie; Choreographer, Molly Rhode/David Roman; Sc.enic Designer, Front Row Theatricals; Costume Designer, Jason Orlenko; Lighting Designer, Joseph Arthur Franjoine; Sound Designer, Hankyu Lee;Production Stage Manager, Daniel J. Hanson; Production Photographer, Mark Frohna. 

One thought on “Skylight’s “Newsies” Tries Hard But Just Doesn’t Deliver

  1. From the two places I saw Newsies, I loved it. They were on tour at Belk Theater- which was on tour and at community college. Belk Theater is one of Blumenthal Performing Art’s Theater’s (Blumenthal Performing Arts is how Charlotte gets the Broadway tour; Belk Theater is the main theater of Blumenthal). My first production I saw of Newsies was at Belk: I felt an emotional connection from the beginning to the end. I still love Newsies- you are looking at a musical theatre fanatic after all.

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