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'Newsies' Refreshed National Tour Is A Crowd-Pleaser

Special to The Courant
"Newsies'' is Disney's Broadway hit, touring The Bushnell in Hartford through Oct. 18

Remember when newspapers had morning and afternoon editions, sometimes only slightly different in content but offering an undeniable in-your-face freshness?

The first national tour of the 2012-14 Broadway hit "Newsies" played Waterbury's Palace Theater a year ago this month. The tour has returned to Connecticut, at Hartford's Bushnell through Sunday, Oct. 18, with new actors in nearly all the show's lead roles. The new kids' eagerness to please is palpable, adding even more energy to a show that is already exhilaratingly, exhaustingly exuberant.

Stocked with scruffy New York City orphans who sing, dance and speak truth to power, "Newsies" is the male version of "Annie." It even ends with the appearance of a Roosevelt (Theodore, not Franklin) and a heartwarming triumph of children over their oppressors.

But "Newsies," based on the equally spritely 1992 movie musical of the same name, also has a lot in common with a slightly older breed of NYC musical theater urchins — the tough-guy terpsichoreans of "West Side Story." "Newsies" is studded with muscular, acrobatic dance routines. Although it doesn't have the courage to put its highest-energy Jerome Robbins-esque bruiser-ballet sequence in the middle of the show, a la "West Side Story"'s "Dance in the Gym," it does produce one hell of a curtain-call crowd-pleaser.

Much of the dancing in "Newsies" is mingled with dialogue and repeated anthemic rumblings of the song "Seize the Day." The dance moves help move the plot forward one leaping, spinning step at a time. The New York newsboys run, somersaulting, from the cops. They tussle with the publishers who have threatened their livelihood by raising the wholesale price of "papes" (newspapers). They rush up and down fire escapes. They kick back, then kick up a fuss, celebrating as they become front-page celebrities themselves due to the citywide newsboys strike they foment.

There's not much historical accuracy in this Disneyfied depiction of the real-life 1899 New York newsboys strike — even less than in the movie version, in fact, because the stage adaptation creates a character named Katherine, the comely, muckraking, union-sympathizing daughter of New York World magnate Joseph Pulitzer, to provide a romantic interest for the show's heroic (if occasionally muddled and insecure) strike-leader, Jack Kelly. Pulitzer, who's now better remembered for the journalistic honors that bear his name than for the yellow-journalizing and strike-breaking he practiced in his heyday, did, in fact, have a daughter named Katherine, but she died when she was 2.

No, "Newsies" is not a monument to fact checking, proofreading and fair and balanced journalism. It's a rowdy reminder of bygone days when news headlines were screamed in the streets rather than tweeted.

It's not all nostalgia. There's a pointed comment about the dangers of playing football, which could have been torn from present-day op-ed columns. And a show that talks incessantly of job-creation, union-busting, mocking the media, police brutality, the value of publicity, winning at any cost and "total disregard for authority," might be mistaken these days for a presidential campaign debate. "Newsies" is fueled by energetic debates and arguments which, in the show's own words, "challenge a whole generation to stand up and take a place at the table."

In its current incarnation, "Newsies" happily still acts like it has something to prove. Director Jeff Calhoun (whose riotous youth-musical resume is impeccable, including the 1994 revival of "Grease," the stage versions of the first two "High School Musical"s) has conceived a production that is in constant motion yet beautifully balanced and easy to follow. The pacing is snappy. The harmony vocalizing is boys-choir powerful. The Tony-winning choreography (by Christopher Gattelli, whose non-Broadway credits include directing the world premiere of "Emmet Otter's Jug-Band Christmas" at the Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam) is tightly wound and downright dazzling, from its frantic back flips to its impressive paperboy pirouettes. The set design, by Tobin Ost, veers from austere, ornate New York buildings to the bare metal railings of tenements and printing plants, augmented by artful projections originally designed by Sven Ortel and adapted for touring by Daniel Brodie.

The new newsies in this touring cast include Joey Barreiro as a sly, smoldering Jack Kelly, instigator of the strike; Morgan Keene as the formidable female news reporter Katherine, who helps turn the strike into a media event; Stephen Michael Langton as the contemplative, brainy and articulate Davey; Ethan Steiner (who oozed cuteness at Tuesday's performance) and John Michael Pitera, alternating the role of Davey's little brother, Les; and the able-voiced Aisha deHaas as one of the few adults in the show, music hall thrush Medda Larkin. Steve Blanchard as the implacable Joe Pulitzer, Zachary Sayle as the sentimental Crutchie (whose plight has Jack Kelly reconsidering the courage of his convictions) and Kevin Carolan as a giddy, cuddly Teddy Roosevelt are among those who've remained with the Newsies tour since last year.

Transplanted on Broadway by such other youthful shows as "Matilda'' and the "Spring Awakening'' revival, and already making its second appearance in Connecticut, "Newsies" is no longer the new kid on the block. But it's still a newsworthy success, singing the praises of cooperation, organization and old-school journalism while kicking up its heels as high as ever.

"NEWSIES" continues through Sunday, Oct. 18, at Mortensen Hall at The Bushnell, 166 Capitol Ave, Hartford. Tickets start at $29.50. For more info: bushnell.org or call the box office at 860-987-5900.

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