Anna Holloway review: 'Newsies' a study in art and irony
The short version: Go see “Newsies” at the Civic Center. It’s high energy, family friendly and has some really great feels. Read on for the longer version.
Lyric’s summer season at the Civic Center is offering Disney’s “Newsies” through Sunday, directed by Lyric’s associate artistic director Ashley Wells. Based loosely on the 1899 newsboy strike in New York City, the real story is interesting in itself: Newsies were young boys and girls, ranging in age from 5 or 6 through their early 20s who earned a very small living by selling the evening papers on the city streets to passersby. In July 1899, several papers raised their wholesale price, cutting into the tight profit margin of these children who were mostly working to support themselves and their families. The newsies unionized and went on strike for a few weeks to force the papers to treat them with some respect as a valuable part of the newspapers’ own profit chain. They were partially successful; they did not get the price lowered, but they did get the newspapers to buy back the unsold papers so the newsies did not have to sell until late in the night to try and make back their costs.
Disney’s version of the story invents Jack Kelly, a charismatic leader, and his supportive sideman Davey, with obligatory smart kid sidekick, Davey’s younger brother Les. They start the strike, face pushback and dirty tricks from the newspaper heavies, and eventually triumph with the assistance of a young reporter, Katherine Plumber. The story line is pure Disney, including the addition of a social justice subplot unrelated to the original strike. Those who know something of the Pulitzer family will recognize that one of the plot twists is a bit of romantic historical fantasy.
Bearing in mind that many of the real newsies were self-supporting orphans, or children of single parents working to support their families, the Lyric production has used almost every talented performer in the Metro between the ages of 10 and 20, as well as the adult cast. The company has over 45 performers, and several take on multiple roles. This show has been no small undertaking, and everyone brought their "A" game. Performances were excellent.
Sean Watkinson offered a sympathetically gritty Jack, maintaining a convincing combination of accent and attitude in song, dance, and spoken word. Watkinson presented a Jack struggling with his own self-worth in a world that had already decided he had none. Jimmy Mavrikes sold us a Davey who didn’t want trouble, just wanted to make some money to help feed his family, and yet became a leader in the strike. Callen Stewart’s Les was a tough, cheeky, and courageous urchin; Les is one of the motivators who convinces the older boys to strike.
As the attractive young reporter, Mattie Tucker Joyner delivered a brave and daring Katherine, an early women’s rights activist and family rebel. Joyner’s posture betrayed Katherine’s inner dialogue: Her concerns, her passions, her insecurities were all visible in her spine — a really clever piece of performance technique.
Representing the true antagonist (i.e., class divisions), W. Jerome Stevenson gave us a socially dark and convincing Joseph Pulitzer, the news mogul who the newsies hope has a practical streak of justice somewhere inside. Rodney Brazil gave a "Bully!" performance as New York Governor Teddy Roosevelt. Stealing every scene she entered, M. Denise Lee embodied the music hall diva Medda Larkin. Medda lets the newsies use her theater for a rally; a music hall owner was astride the class line, since many of the upper-class people patronize her establishment. Lee gave Medda sass and class to go with her warmth and compassion.
The entire ensemble was tight, professional and believable. They achieved this partly through the effective and thoughtful direction of Ashley Wells. Technical elements created the world — lighting, sound and properties helped to convince us that we were in 1899 New York. Jeffrey Meek’s costumes clearly placed each character in the hierarchy of the city, from youngest orphan newsie to the pompous and self-centered Pulitzer. Clever mobile set pieces designed by Kimberly Powers gave us a sense of place, whether it was the street homes of the newsies or the vast and impressive office of a mogul. Leaving aside the irony of this show about the power of workers banding together to negotiate for better conditions being produced in the capitol city of a right-to-work state, the impressive and apparently working printing press of the period was a remarkable symbol of the power that our First Amendment conveys.
Perhaps the most impressive element of the storytelling was the choreography. Amy Reynolds-Reed built dance sequences that created the illusion of unison while retaining the energy and ragged individualism of street urchins. The extraordinary ensemble dances made use of a range of movement that encompass athleticism and classic dance technique to construct experiences of unity and conflict to dynamically propel the story.
Go see “Newsies” at the Civic Center. It’s a high-energy, family friendly show. Tickets may be bought online via LyricTheatreOKC.org, or call the Lyric box office at 405-524-9312.