By Gretchen Van Benthuysen |
The musical “Newsies,” inspired by the 1992 movie based on a real newsboys’ strike in 1899, is a singing and dancing extravaganza at the Axelrod Performing Arts Center in Ocean Township.
The show – with music by Alan Menken (“Little Shop of Horrors,” “Beauty and the Beast,” “Sister Act”), lyrics by Jack Feldman (“The Madwoman of Central Park West”) and a book by Harvey Fierstein (“Kinky Boots,” “La Cage aux Folles,” “Legs Diamond”) – had its world premiere at New Jersey’s Paper Mill Playhouse in 2011 before moving to Broadway for more than 1,000 performances, followed by a national tour.
Obviously, it’s a crowd-pleaser, and has all the right elements for a great American rags to riches story: scrappy street kids selling newspapers to help their poor immigrant families survive, wealthy publishers who see their profits falling so raise the cost newsies pay to buy the “papes” to resell on the streets, corrupt characters, a love story, a savior with a solution and a job offer for our hero.
What the Axelrod production of this Tony Award-winning musical (Best Choreography, Best Original Score) has that most don’t are girl newsies. And not because director/choreographer Marcos Santana couldn’t find enough boys. He did the same thing earlier this year in south Florida when he helmed “Newsies” at the Maltz Jupiter Theatre. He also has choreographed and performed in musicals on Broadway.
Unlike the Broadway show, Santana said at the time, he didn’t want to dress girls as boys. “I found some pictures in the Library of Congress database confirming that there were female newsies.”
Good for him. No matter their gender, the terrific dancing-cartwheeling-spinning-somersaulting-backflipping ensemble dominates the show. The super-talented cast also boasts magnificent voices. Some of the songs might be indistinguishable once the curtain comes down, but the tap dancing Act Two opening number “King of New York” is a memorable hit. All of this helps masks Fierstein’s bare-bones book.
The cast is led by three members of the Actors’ Equity union. Jim Schubin delivers a very credible Jack Kelly, who rallies the newsies to go on strike against the ruthless publishing tycoon Joseph Pulitzer (James Judy), who could care less if the “gutter rats” live or die. N’Kenge plays Medda, a showgirl with a heart of gold and a voice that is top-notch.
Lane Northcutt plays Davy, the brains behind the strike who advises Jack on strategy, and Henry Berry is Les, his precocious younger brother who turns on the cuteness to sell more papers.
Lilly Elliott plays Katherine, a reporter and Jack’s love interest, who gets the newsies’ strike on the front page. Patrick Tombs is Crutchie, Jack’s best friend.
Andrew David Sotomayor is the musical director/conductor of the very impressive nine-member orchestra. Fred Sorrentino’s set echoes Tobin Ost’s original versatile erector set design of three towers moving around the stage for various uses. Catherine Clark designed the lights.
Where “Newsies” falters – as did the previous production of “Ragtime” – is that producers Andrew Deprisco and Jess Levy are mounting major musicals on a shallow stage, with no fly space for scenery, no pit for the orchestra, and no lighting positions in the auditorium.
When scenes are played downstage, the first three rows of the theater and proscenium walls also are lit, and at one point illuminated a crew member on her headset. More lighting positions would fix that. Other drawbacks will be harder to solve.
Rome wasn’t built in a day, and Deprisco and Levy are ambitious.
***“Newsies” continues through June 17 at the Axelrod Performing Arts Center, 100 Grant Ave., Deal Park section of Ocean Township. Tickets $42 and $45 for adults, $37 and $41 for seniors, and $29 for students. Call 732-531-9106 or visit for more information.***
Journalist Gretchen C. Van Benthuysen’s theater news and reviews can be found on theatercues.com.
This article was first published in the June 14-June 21, 2018 print edition of The Two River Times.