SOUTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. — Theatre by the Sea offers an energetic evening of family entertainment with a rousing new production of Disney’s “Newsies.” Though the musical based on the 1992 movie only premiered on Broadway in 2012, Theatre by the Sea’s take feels like a good old-fashioned song and dance classic. “Newsies” is a period piece which delivers a satisfying David versus Goliath story alongside a charming, if familiar, Lady and the Tramp romance subplot. Set in turn-of-the-century New York City, “Newsies” is a loose retelling of the famous Newsboy’s Strike of 1899. The story pits newspaper delivery boy Jack Kelly and his fellow “newsies” against the powerful publisher, Joseph Pulitzer, who jacks up the cost of “the papes” in order to pad his own bottom line.
The 1992 Disney film featured original songs by legendary composer and songwriter Alan Menken (known to Disney audiences for his award-winning scores for “The Little Mermaid,” “Beauty and the Beast,” and “Aladdin”). The stage musical brings in another legend, playwright and actor Harvey Fierstein, who wrote the book. The Broadway production was a minor hit for Disney, running for nearly two years and winning a Tony Award for Best Original Score.
What stands out most in Theatre By The Sea’s production is how it great it looks and sounds. Production elements are top notch, starting with Kyle Dixon’s dynamic multilevel scenic design. Dixon’s set transports the audience with ease between tenement fire escapes, city alleys and streets, and vaudeville theaters, and gives the small stage a sense of height and depth. Jose’s lighting design, Meg Kane’s wig and hair design, and David Costa-Cabral’s period costuming all support the production’s sharp look. Jacob Priddy adds great keyboard effects and deftly conducts the seven person orchestra, who work together to give the music a soaring and cinematic sound.
Under the direction of Richard Sebellico, the show has a rowdy energy befitting both the large cast of primarily young men, as well as the rebellious plot themes. While singing and acting finesse is sometimes sacrificed in the process, none of the spirit is lost. Menken’s anthemic ensemble numbers tend to carry the day, including “Carrying the Banner,” “The World Will Know” (reprised once), “Seize the Day” (reprised twice), and the second act showstopper, “Brooklyn Here.” The force of these ensemble numbers is enhanced by perhaps this production’s biggest star, Charlie Sutton’s choreography which showcases the performers’ grace and athleticism. Theatre By The Sea seldom skimps on the dance numbers, but it is a joy to see this rendition of “Newsies” double down on one of the things that they can do best. In spite of the two hour, 45-minute run time and extended second act, this show seldom flags for energy.
The focal character in the drama is Jack Kelly, a street smart newsie who longs to go west and answers – reluctantly, at first – the call to organize and lead the strike against Pulitzer. Jack is played with an almost melodramatic vigor by Clay Roberts. While Roberts has a lovely singing voice, he often makes expressive choices in favor of intensity and emotion, like a young Marlon Brando. This is seen particularly in his two renditions of “Santa Fe” which bookend the first act – the first hopeful and contemplative, the second fiery and conflicted. Roberts enjoys strong chemistry with other central players, particularly his sidekick Crutchie, played by Joseph Allen. Katie Claire McGrath adds a lot with her portrayal of intrepid and aspiring hard news reporter, Katherine Plumber, who becomes more deeply intertwined with the newsies’ cause, and love interest, Jack. McGrath allows herself room to grow between her first act solo “Watch What Happens” and her touching duet with Jack, “Something to Believe In,” which is, along with “Santa Fe,” one of Menken’s finest moments in this musical. Dean Cestari shines through in a supporting role as Davey and has great chemistry with the charming Matthew Packard who plays Davey’s younger brother, Les. Ebony Deloney is also noteworthy as vaudeville theater owner – and newsies’ ally – Medda Larkin, with a solid first act number “That’s Rich.” Seth Lerner steals the scene twice, first as middleman Wiesel, but again in an excellent cameo as Governor Roosevelt.
Themes of justice and solidarity run strong with the organized labor plot. While many musicals toy with the stick-it-to-the-man anti-authoritarianism, “Newsies” inspires with a hard-earned gravitas, but in the process is just plain fun – as family entertainment goes, It is something of a “Les Miserables, Jr.” Theatre By The Sea’s “Newsies” earned an opening night ovation from the captivated audience.
With the 2019 season finale, “Saturday Night Fever,” on its way for August, theatergoers who have already secured their tickets for this summer might turn their sights to next year. At the opening night show, Theatre By The Sea’s owner and producer, Bill Hanney, announced a 2020 lineup which will include “Mamma Mia Returns,” the jukebox musical “Million Dollar Quartet,” “Funny Girl,” and Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Cinderella.” The 2020 season finale will be the surprise Broadway hit “Kinky Boots” with a book by Fierstein and an original score by Cyndi Lauper.