By Dan Hagen
Child labor hasn’t been this much fun since Annie.
The Little Theatre’s current production is the first time I’ve seen Newsies in any form. And a labor-based musical, however fanciful, is an occurrence rare enough to deserve some consideration. Bart Rettberg reminded me about the 1954 Broadway musical The Pajama Game, but no others spring readily to mind.
The real-life New York City Newsboys Strike of 1899 inspired this confection, which was a 1992 Disney movie before it moved to the stage.
The show’s setting is remote enough in time not to raise any eyebrows for siding with the literally unwashed masses against capital. But it also retains an afterglow of urgency from the fact that none of these issues has ever really gone away. The fight for a living wage is still a live wire here.
The opening songs focus on that that staple theme of American entertainment, good old feel-good poverty. It isn’t until Joseph Pulitzer (Gus Gordon) cuts the newsboys’ meager wages, sparking an impromptu strike, that the story really engages our interest.
Teddy Roosevelt (Marty Harbaugh) serves precisely the same role here that his fifth cousin Franklin Delano Roosevelt did in Annie — the powerful, benevolent deus ex machina that neatly ties up the package by siding with the underdogs. The show taught me some history. I did not know, for example, that a teenager’s drawings caused Teddy Roosevelt to clean up the New York State penal system.
Director Peter Marinaro’s production cannot completely mute the factory whistle of manufactured merriment that is so often built in to a Disney show. The music by Alan Menken, Jack Feldman and Harvey Fierstein is not immortal, but it is serviceable.
Alexander Capeneka’s moveable set, backed by a projection screen, skillfully suggests elevated train tracks and city rooftops.
And while this production may be short on spectacle, it is long on talent.
A Little Theatre veteran, Gordon gives an assured performance as the newspaper magnate Pulitzer, perfectly puffed up with his own power.
Garret Griffin is Crutchie, the Tiny Tim of the piece, whose job it is to be a buoyantly optimistic boy because he’s the one nearest to drowning. That’s a role that could easily be cloying, but Griffin gives it heart.
Ironically, Equity actress Alex Kidder is Katherine, the Lois Lane of this show. Plucky and pretty, she’s an aspiring reporter who gives as good as she gets.
Equity actress Heather Beck is Medda Larkin, the Ethel Merman/Reno Sweeney of this show. She pulls in the audience by belting out That’s Rich, a saucy song that is one of the production’s best numbers (“I live in a mansion on/Long Island sound. I pulled up a weed, they/Found oil in the ground./But you telling me you don't/Want me around — Now, honey, that's rich.”)
Tyler Pirrung plays Davey, the newsboy who’s relatively wealthy only because his impoverished parents are still alive. His best turn comes in Seize the Day, a stompy strike dance with helicoptering legs that shows off Joey Dippel’s choreography to good effect.
One of my favorite performers, Corey John Hafner, is the streetwise newsboy Race. He shines in the look-at-me number King of New York, and it’s not every actor who can make an audience roar merely by pronouncing the word “oyster.”
New York actor Bradley Cashman, as the newsboys’ champion Jack Kelly, has the requisite roguish charm, and his feisty romance with Kidder is more credible than most. Cashman impresses the audience at the curtain of the first act with his soaring tribute to his Shangri-La, Santa Fe.
Funny to think that if Jack had ever realized his young man’s dream of going west, he might have run into Curly, Laurey, Jud, Will and Ado Annie, the characters from the Little Theatre’s previous production, Oklahoma!, which is dramatically contemporary to Newsies.
They might have looked oddly familiar to him.
Incidental intelligence: Newsies runs through July 28. For tickets, call The Little Theatre On The Square Box Office at 217-728-7375.
Musical direction is by Kevin Long, with lighting design by Mitchell Ost.
The talented cast includes Cian Lynch, Jordan Cyphert, Trevor Vanderzee, Nicholas Wilson, Nicholas Carroll, Emily Long, Emily Bacino Althaus, Kate Turner, Mandy Modic, Brittany Ambler, Madilyn Keller, Bradyn Wambach, Jaimar Brown, Lars Kristian Hafell, James Garrett Hill, Izzy Miller, Madeline Cohoon and Grace Lynch.