By Daniel Skora
Before computers, iPads and iPhones, there were newspapers. Ink was the lifeblood of the nation and paper the conduit through which it flowed. In retrospect, the news of the day was the news of the day before, or even days before, for not only did the information network move slowly then, but was further hampered by the rigors of manual typesetting and the demands of printing presses.
Yes, newspapers are still with us, but with the speed and portability of digital information, it is not too far fetched to imagine the eventual disappearance altogether of newspapers as we know them. As the boomers and their parents pass on, so too will those who were more comfortable with the feel of newsprint in their hands than an electronic box. But newspapers are as American as baseball and apple pie, and “Newsies”, Broadway in Detroit’s current presentation at The Detroit Opera House, takes a musical look at a period when “newspapering” was one of the busiest enterprises on the streets of American cities.
Jack Kelly (Joey Barreiro) is a newspaper delivery boy in New York City. The time is 1899, when newsboys across the city had to pay for their papers before delivering them to their customers or hawking them on busy street corners. And they were forced to eat the cost of the papers they were unable to sell. Though a paper cost around a nickel and a newsboy made only a few cents on each one sold, those pennies were important at a time when families were poor and jobs scarce.
“Newsies”, and the Disney film from which it is adapted, is based on an actual event. At the turn of the century, Joseph Pulitzer, the publisher of the New York World (played by Steve Blanchard in the play), raised the prices that he charged the newsboys for their papers. In the musical, Jack becomes their leader and spearheads a movement among them to strike. He gets help from Davey (Stephen Michael Langton), and his little brother Les (John Michael Pitera alternating with Ethan Steiner). Jack’s best friend Crutchie (Zachary Sayle), misses out on much of the protest because he has been sent back to the children’s refuge, where the living conditions are deplorable.
“Newsies” is a lively musical that features some rousing dance numbers by a talented group of dancers. With nary a chorine in the bunch, it’s left to the guys to furnish the leg power, and they come through with “leaping” colors. There’s a love interest for Jack in Katherine (Morgan Keene), a journalist who takes an interest in the newsboys’ strike. Medda (Aisha de Haas) is the owner of a theatre where the newsboys seek asylum from Warden Snyder (James Judy), who is looking to bring Jack in on some unresolved charges.
The songs are purposed to coincide with the plotline and though there’s none that spell instant hit, they all play well within the musical’s action (music by Alan Menken, lyrics by Jack Feldman, book by Harvey Fierstein). The set (by Tobin Ost) is one of those “scaffold” types currently popular with Broadway designers. This one is three-tiered and takes up the entire Opera House stage, floor to ceiling. With slide projections, it precludes the necessity of a host of scene changes and numerous props.
Fans of the film will love “Newsies” as most of the film’s musical numbers have survived the transition. Others will enjoy the depiction of an era when life in America was much different that it is now, and cries of “Extra, Extra, Read All about It” could be heard on the street corners of all major American cities. “Newsies” runs through December 27th. Tickets are available at all Ticketmaster locations, by phone at 1.800.982.2787, online at www.BroadwayinDetroit.com or www.ticketmaster.com, and at the Fisher Theatre Box Office.